GUEST COMMENTARY: Calling it meat is a bad idea anyway

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Artificial meat is all the rage, with dozens of articles in leading publications describing the trend, startups funded by the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson developing meat substitutes, and even agricultural stalwarts like Tyson Foods and Cargill are betting on the replacement of cows and pigs by “Clean Meat.”

It was hard for me even to type the phrase “Clean Meat,” the title chosen by the various promoters of this latest affront to the American palate, but readers need to know these things, and I’m here to help you learn.

I have to tell you, this foray into the future is only possible for me because I’m fueled by the filet I had for lunch, a piece of honest to God beef that started life in a pasture, spent some time eating actual grass and then corn, and finally ended up as one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. Protein, vitamins, a slightly charred exterior, and a warm red center are the only things that make this essay possible, and I’m not ashamed to admit that fact.

The Missouri legislature recently passed a bill banning the labeling of meat substitutes as meat. Farmers make their living from raising animals that produce meat, occupying the center of the plate in any meal worth eating, and are rightly jealous of sharing that hard earned consumer love with a product made in a lab by food scientists wearing white coats and resembling Mary Shelley, who anticipated laboratory grown flesh with her depiction of Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s probably true that these concoctions of either laboratory grown cell structures or soybeans and salt, the latter being necessary because soybeans, no matter how they are extruded, heated, processed, and tortured, don’t taste like much, and are no threat to a hamburger grilled over an open flame. So why take the chance?

Not to mention the fact that there is something dishonest about calling a product something that it is clearly not. Even marketing experts should be reminded, now and again, that words have meaning.

Opponents of the bill, often the same groups that so strongly favored the mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products, are aghast that consumers will now know exactly what they are buying.

Observers of the legislative battle have probably noticed that the two sides have switched positions. Farmers generally oppose the labeling of products produced from plants that have been improved by the latest breeding techniques. Farmers have the best of this argument over who is the biggest hypocrite, as hundreds of studies have shown no difference in safety or nutrition between genetically engineered products and their conventionally bred cousins.

Nobody can argue that artificial meat and the real thing are the same. One bite will settle that argument for all time.

Meat substitutes are deemed necessary because meat is harmful to the environment, or so goes the argument. Yep, we should replace black cows grazing on green pastures with large metal buildings housing laboratories, filled with huge industrial vats culturing cells that will someday end up on your plate, but only after the proper amount of amendments are added to faithfully reproduce the same product that we aren’t supposed to eat.

The environmental arguments against eating meat aren’t as clear as we often read, mostly because cows magically transform grass and other forages that we can’t eat into meat that we can.

Not only that, but cows graze on land that is typically not suited to produce grain or vegetables. The only way to produce food from large swaths of the American West and Africa, as just two examples, is to raise cows. This is a huge net gain to society, both in nutrition and pleasure, and all of us should enjoy our barbecued brisket without the least bit of environmental angst.

But, for the sake of argument, if meat is a total environmental criminal, why call your product meat? Wouldn’t it be better to separate one’s product from the environmentally damaging past, and lead the way into the environmentally perfect future, where we can consume your new product without guilt? If meat is so bad, why complain when labeling laws save you from a huge marketing mistake?