Lab-grown meat is on its way, and the government is trying to figure out how to regulate it. This week, the US House of Representatives released a draft spending bill that proposes that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate lab-grown meat and figure out how it should be labeled — which is a contentious topic since Big Cattle doesn’t want it to be called “meat.” Regulation is important, and there’s plenty more to learn, but the USDA shouldn’t be the only one regulating. And when the product comes to market, yes, it should be called “meat.”
Traditional meat, of course, comes from animals that are raised and slaughtered. Lab-grown meat (also called “in-vitro meat,” “cultured meat,” or “clean meat”) is made from animal stem cells grown in a lab. But because the stem cells are typically fed with a serum derived from the blood of calf fetuses, the product uses animal products and isn’t vegan. Still, the pitch for lab-grown meat is that it saves animals and also helps the environment because lab-grown meat doesn’t take much land or energy to grow. Plus, lab-grown meat doesn’t directly create methane emissions, while methane emissions from cows accounted for 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
Because of the way that government agencies work, it hasn’t even been clear who should regulate lab meat. The USDA traditionally regulates meat, while the US Food and Drug Administration regulates food safety and additives. The proposal that the USDA be in charge of regulation is in line with what the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association wanted, but some lab-meat advocates fear that USDA will be biased against them in favor of traditional meat. If the USDA will be regulating lab meat, it should at least collaborate with the FDA. There are no slaughterhouses for the USDA to inspect anyway, and the FDA has already been regulating food technology, like the genetically engineered salmon it approved. It makes the most sense for the two to work together.
The who question aside, there is also the question of naming. Earlier this year, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a government petition asking that “meat” be defined so that lab-grown meat is excluded because it is “not derived from animals born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”
Labeling and regulation are important, and there’s a lot we genuinely don’t know about how cultured meat compares. “We’re finding there aren’t even real standards about what makes a chicken muscle cell a chicken muscle cell,” Isha Datar, executive director of the nonprofit research institute New Harvest, told Science Magazine. “There’s actually an enormous amount of things that we would have to clarify in order to say that [lab-grown meat] is equivalent to the animal products that we are familiar with.”
These questions need to be clarified. But if we get to the point where we do have standards, and the two products are the same except in how they were raised, forcing one thing to be called, for example, “animal cell tissue” and the other “meat” ignores the fact that meat is animal cell tissue. This attempt to call one and not the other “meat” ignores how we use language and ignores the fact that both are, functionally, what most consumers think of as meat. When most people think of meat, our most immediate associations are with a type of food and a taste and texture, not visions of the farm where cattle graze, or much to do with “the traditional way they are harvested.”
Supposedly, lab meat is coming whether we like it or not. Five years ago, the first lab-grown hamburger cost over $300,000. In 2015, the same company claimed that it had gotten the cost down to $11 per burger. It’ll be a while before there’s a viable lab-meat industry, but the CEO of clean-meat company Just has said he hopes to have his products in restaurants by the end of the year. Large companies, too, are betting that consumers will bite: Tyson just co-led a $2.2 million investment in an Israel lab-meat startup.
That’s the vision, but there are problems with the narrative. There’s a lot of hype in the industry and no good consumer product yet, and it absolutely needs to be carefully regulated to make sure that it adheres to all our standards of food safety. One 2016 survey found that, though only about 20 percent of Americans were unwilling to try cultured meat, many had plenty of reasonable concerns, like price, whether the burger tastes good, and wanting to know more about how it’s made. And it’s even fair for cattle producers to say that terms like “clean meat” have a somewhat misleading, holier-than-thou tone, considering the product is still made with animal blood.
If the consumer product pulls through, its manufacturers will probably want to differentiate their product themselves — after all, the hope is that vegetarians who wouldn’t touch what USCA considers “real meat” might eat this alternative protein. But they should still be able to call it a form of “meat.” Insisting it’s not plays into the traditional meat industry’s desire for dominance, at the cost of a product that could help alleviate ethical and environmental conundrums. Like the arguments for labeling genetically modified fruits and vegetables, trying to force it into another category is meant to prey on a fear of the unfamiliar and new, even when “the unfamiliar” is perfectly safe and could be better.