Mincing words: the fight to define meat

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Real or fake? The debate around the classification of what constitutes meat in the United States is heating up
Real or fake? The debate around the classification of what constitutes meat in the United States is heating up

The US meat industry is attempting to officially define ‘meat’ as a slew of new, clean meats move closer to the dinner table

What makes meat, meat? This question is bothering all sides of the US meat industry, amid a flurry of research and development in what’s being called ‘lab-grown’ meat. The high-tech food is made by replicating small amounts of animal stem cells. While techniques vary from lab to lab, many of the start-up companies behind the research share the same goal – to take large-scale animal farming and slaughter out of the meat production equation. Hence their self-given title: ‘clean meats’.

‘These products appeal to consumers increasingly conscious of the health, ethical and environmental impacts of their shopping,’ says Malte Rödl, who researches meat alternatives at the University of Manchester. ‘Having the word “meat” on the label will fuel costumer expectations.’

Though the expensive technology means lab-grown meats are not for sale yet, they are expected be on shelves within the decade. The existing meat industry – worth an annual $860billion – is torn over how best to face its future competitors. The first shots were fired by the meat producers. In February, the US Cattlemen’s Association filed a 15-page petition to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reserve the terms ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ for products that were ‘derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered’. Confusingly, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, has now countered that petition, stating lab-cultured meats are ‘derived from parts of a carcass, in this case stem cells, and therefore fall within the statutory definition of meat food products’. However, this too is probably a tactical move to hamper development of the new foods by bringing them under the same ‘stringent’ food safety inspection standards as meat from a slaughterhouse.

While meat consumption is expected to hit record highs in 2018, the reactions from cattle associations show they sense future disruption. ‘In the US, livestock producers are fiercely defensive of their terms, particularly those pertaining to specific animals such as “pork” and “beef”,’ says Edward Mills, professor of meat science at the Pennsylvania State University. ‘The producers are going to get out ahead of this to reduce the use of those words.’ Mills predicts that the USDA will begin to set significant restrictions on the definition of meat. ‘That being said,’ he adds, ‘these restrictions may loosen over time when the cultured meat companies have products they feel confident fighting for.’

Meat processing companies, on the other hand, are more flexible about their definition of meat. Processing giants Cargill and Tyson are investing millions into the cultured food start-ups, putting them at odds with their traditional producers. ‘Some farmers see that as a betrayal,’ says Mills. ‘As the new products get closer to release, this is a debate that is going to get more intense and complex.’

This was published in the June 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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