Meat Has a Replacement But No One Knows What to Call It

Battle lines blur over labeling lab-grown substitutes as packers invest in the startups making them. ( Farm Journal )

Lab-grown. Cell-based. Clean. In vitro. Cultured. Fake. Artificial. Synthetic. Meat 2.0. These are all terms that refer to the same kind of food, one that’s not even on the market yet.

But the companies making it have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investor cash and earned the close attention of U.S. regulators. Rather than methodically slaughtering animals, this industry uses science to grow what it claims is essentially the same thing as traditional meat. Given the planetary damage wrought by mass-market animal husbandry, such cellular agriculture is seen as the future of meat.

But what to name it, and getting people to eat it, is another matter altogether.

Crucial to public acceptance of any consumer product, of course, is branding. But no one can agree what to call this stuff. Originally, there was a push for the label “clean meat.” This was seen as a better alternative to the more clinical “lab-grown meat,” said Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, which lobbies for these new products. 

But then the traditional meat industry weighed in, saying the cellular version shouldn’t be called meat at all. “We’re using the term ‘lab-produced cultured protein,’” said Dan Kovich, deputy director of science and technology at the National Pork Producers Council. Other groups representing meat producers, including the North American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Chicken Council, also objected to the “clean meat” label. 

The U.S. meat industry represents almost $200 billion in sales, according to one industry estimate, and spends millions of dollars annually to keep Washington in its corner. Investing in this new sector could be giving it more leverage in the debate over what to call the product and how it should be labeled for consumers.

Now, other terms seem to be gaining traction, both in the U.S. and abroad. Mark Post, co-founder of Dutch company Mosa Meats, told AgFunder in July that he doesn’t use the “clean meat” label. “It can’t translate into Dutch, French or German, and it kind of suggests that current meat is dirty,” he said. A spokeswoman for the company told Bloomberg the term is “too antagonistic to industry.”

Meat producers have said “clean meat” is offensive, said Sarah Lucas, head of strategy & communications for Mosa Meat. Investors, meanwhile, “haven’t particularly said that they would like us to use one term over another,” she said. 

In August, cellular agriculture company Memphis Meats (which counts among its financial backers meat giants Cargill and Tyson) used the term “cell-based” in a letter sent to the White House. The co-signer of the letter was none other the Meat Institute, the meat industry’s main lobbying arm.

“We thought it was reasonable and far better than ‘clean meat,’ which is inappropriate and inaccurate,” Eric Mittenthal of the Meat Institute told Bloomberg. Cell-based is “clear, factual and inclusive,” Eric Schulze, vice president of product and regulation at Memphis Meats, told federal regulators last month during a two-day meeting in Washington. “It is distinct from plant-based proteins and animal-based meats. It differentiates our products while also clearly conveying that cell-based meat is, in fact, real meat.”

JUST Inc., which said it may make its first commercial sale of a cultured chicken product this year, is in the “cultured” camp when it comes to names. Labels should include “a statement of identity which indicates that the product is cultured, as well as the species from which the product is derived,” Peter Licari, chief technology officer, said at the meeting.

Friedrich’s opposition notwithstanding, Good Food Institute Policy Director Jessica Almy told Bloomberg her organization has rethought its position on how to talk about the products, too. “It feels like ‘clean meat’ doesn’t resonate with everybody right now,” she said. Others see this budding consensus in a more cynical light.

“I think the meat industry has done something very clever,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group. By investing in companies such as Memphis Meats, it now has a voice from within its own aspiring competition. “They’re not up against the meat industry,” she said of meat substitute companies. “They are the meat industry.

At the meeting last month, officials of the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture listened as industry representatives chewed over the labeling issue. It’s important to protect consumers with transparent labeling, Almy testified, adding that there should be some flexibility in labeling requirements. Meanwhile, Danni Beer of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association said new processes should be spelled out explicitly. 

Brian Spears of New Age Meats argued that it would be dishonest to label meat substitutes as anything other than meat, since it’s really the same thing.

“This conversation is feeling more and more premature,” said Tyler Lobdell, a food-law fellow at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, who told Bloomberg the group seeks to ensure that the meat industry doesn’t hamper consumer options. “We just don’t know what the product looks like, so it’s hard to say what’s misleading when there are no products available.” 

Barbara Kowalcyk, a professor in the department of food science and technology at Ohio State University, said there are still too many unknowns about the products and how they’re made—including food safety risks—for regulators to make any decisions.

“When I asked questions, there weren’t good responses, and that suggests we’re not ready for prime time,” she said. “Before we put it in the marketplace, we need to know the answers.”

One look at the American food landscape reveals that organic sales are outpacing everything else at the grocery store. Restaurant menus are highlighting the locality and diet of the animals they serve. Consumers are hungry for more natural foods and willing to pay more for them.

Key to the success of any new “meat” product, however, is overcoming what’s colloquially called the “ick” factor, and labeling is a big part of that. Almy contends that consumers aren’t overly concerned with the provenance of their meat (or its substitute). “I don’t think most consumers care how their meat is produced,” she said. “There’s a strong desire to not have requirements about distinguishing the origin of these products.”

Sorscher of CSPI called this approach a “horrible mistake.” Using the example of widespread consumer mistrust of genetically modified organisms in food, she predicted “there would be such a backlash from consumers, it would ultimately undermine these products.” Indeed, only 5 percent of Americans think such meat substitutes should be labeled as “meat” without further explanation, according to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, which has also called for more transparency. 

“The labeling issue surrounding products of cellular agriculture is fundamentally a public policy question,” said Robert Hibbert, a partner at law firm Morgan Lewis who focuses on food and agriculture regulations. Because the FDA has allowed food companies wiggle room around identity standards (think “soy milk”) while also bringing enforcement actions when it sees potential for confusion, Hibbert said, it’s hard to predict how these labels will be treated. 

Even those rooting for meat substitutes said consumers deserve to know what they’re getting. Jessica Resler is creative director at Participation Agency, an experiential marketing firm. A vegan who wants to see all slaughterhouses closed, she said a failure to disclose the meat’s origins will anger consumers.

Still, Resler said. “It has to be described on labels, for sure.” 

Eventually, consumers will develop their own shorthand for meat substitutes, for good or for ill. “The mass-adopted term is going to be decided by the public.” Nik Contis, a branding expert at PS212, said. 

 
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