What is meat?
Does it, by definition, have to come from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered? Or can it be cultured and grown in a lab, in a process that produces a substance that has all the qualities of meat, right down to the cellular structure, except for one key difference: its origin? In a word: what is the essence of ‘meatness’?
What sounds like an essay assignment for philosophy undergrads is, in fact, a question being debated vigorously in the US right now, after beef producers filed a petition with regulators asking them to come up with a clear definition for the terms ‘meat’ and ‘beef’. (Though if you do fancy a more philosophical read on this, try the genuinely fascinating ‘Promise and ontological ambiguity in the in vitro meat imagescape’.)
But back to livestock farmers. In a 15-page petition to the USDA, the US Cattlemen’s Association argues ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ should be limited to products derived from animals that have been born, raised and harvested in what the association describes as ‘the traditional manner’.
It’s not hard to see why livestock producers are pushing for clarity on this. Farmers on both sides of the Atlantic have long grumbled about the use of meat terms in connection with imitations: products called ‘chicken-style pieces’ or ‘bacon-flavour rashers’ and suchlike. (Dairy producers have much the same complaint about ‘milks’ made from soya, nuts and oats etc.)
With meat alternatives growing rapidly and plant-based burgers from the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods gaining increasing traction with consumers, producers sense they have to put their foot down now if they are to stem the tide.
Proliferation of synthetic products
Indeed, both Beyond Meat and Impossible are cited in the cattlemen’s submission to the USDA, which notes their tendency to use meat-related terms such as ‘beefy’, ‘burger’ and ‘meat’, and warns: ‘The proliferation of synthetic products is expected to continue, with an increasing number of synthetic products entering the market and displacing the market share of traditional beef products.’
But while plant-based (or ‘synthetic’) products are the most immediate threat, lab-grown alternatives are likely to present a more formidable challenge in the long run. Although commercialisation of in vitro meat is some way off, it is, to all intents and purposes, the ‘real thing’ and therefore much harder to argue against as ‘not meat’.
Winston Churchill anticipated this in his musings on cultured meat in the iconic 50 Years Hence: ‘The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.’
Whether the USDA will agree that’s a problem and come up with strictly ‘real animal’ criteria for meat and beef will be fascinating to see. It’s a potentially slippery slope for regulators, which could see them get drawn into endless debates about what does and doesn’t constitute ‘real’ products. (For a taste, check out #realbreadweek right now.)
What the cattlemen’s petition does show, however, is that livestock producers are taking the threat from alternative proteins seriously. And they are not going to take this one lying down.