I will admit that I’m as guilty as the next journalist of spending untold hours and thousands of words explaining, analyzing and putting into perspective the R&D and marketing of the new category of alt-meat products.
These admittedly innovative creations range from cultured tissue derived from animal substrates and grown under lab conditions to biologically resemble animal flesh, to plant-protein formulations that mimic the texture and mouthfeel of chicken, beef or pork.
While these high-tech, high-cost and highly processed products represent a truly revolutionary scientific application — a development unknown a mere decade ago — they are being championed by multiple media members as the solution to everything from animal abuse to climate change to energy security.
Which they’re decidedly not.
Now, an industry association is determined to make sure these alt-meat products don’t get to claim that they’re “meat.”
The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, which said the group is responding to the concerns of its members, has petitioned USDA to issue stricter labeling standards so that these lab-grown, plant-based analogues cannot be labeled as “meat” in supermarkets and grocery stores.
In a filing titled, “Petition to Establish Beef and Meat Labeling Requirements: To Exclude Product Not Derived Directly from Animals Raised and Slaughtered from the Definition of ‘Beef’ and ‘Meat,’ ” the association offered the following argument:
“USCA [U.S. Cattlemen’s Association] has long advocated for additional beef labeling requirements to better inform consumers. [S]ome major U.S. meatpackers and companies in other countries are heavily investing in creating alternative products that may resemble in appearance and taste beef products, including synthetic ‘beef’ and ‘beef’ grown in laboratories using animal cells, known as ‘in vitro’ meat, ‘bio meat,’ ‘clean meat,’ or ‘cultured meat.’
“Such products, which are not derived from animals born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, should not be permitted to be marketed as ‘beef,’ or more broadly as ‘meat’ products. The labels of ‘beef’ or ‘meat’ should inform consumers that the product is derived naturally from animals… ”
Your Move, USDA
Although crafted in the language of American Legalese, USCA’s petition makes sense, both from a regulatory standpoint and from the perspective of marketplace fairness.
As a regulatory agency, USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service (responsible for labeling of animal foods) has the duty to strictly monitor and rigorously enforce what are called Standards of Identity. Whether it’s butter, bacon or beef, consumers have the right to know that product labels using those terms refer to specific food products with specific characteristics that never vary.
As explained in the USDA/FSIS “Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book,” the descriptive terms being appropriated by the alt-meat start-ups are clearly in violation of its own rules, which state that, “For purposes of this Policy Book, whenever the terms beef, pork, lamb, mutton, or veal are used they indicate the use of skeletal muscle tissue from the named species (9 CFR 301.2).”
More to the point, the rationale for regulating food labeling terminology also stems from the need to make sure consumers get what they pay for, that they can have faith in the descriptions of the foods they buy.
That’s why food marketers use phrases such as “made with real butter,” or “contains real cheese.” The substitutes for those ingredients (made from many of the same plant-based functional ingredients used in alt-meat products) are not only less desirable from a sensory or flavor perspective, but they often cost less and would thus confer an unfair advantage on companies if they were allowed to market foods that didn’t have to conform to identity standards.
One final observation: There are checkoffs for beef and pork that fund research, marketing and promotional initiatives to position red meats as the wholesome, nutritious foods that they are. Why should these meat analogue entrepreneurs, who love nothing more than boasting about how Bill Gates, Richard Branson and other billionaires are totally turned on about their innovative products, get to piggyback on the hard work that checkoff dollars are funding to promote real meat products in the marketplace?
Now the ball is in USDA’s court to enforce its own rules and make sure the alt-meat makers have to be equally innovative about the names they intend to give to their products.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.