A classic Portlandia sketch is one about the organic chicken served in a restaurant. In it, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein ask a server increasingly specific questions about the origins of the poultry they are about to order.
If you thought choosing between organic, grass-fed, free-range, GMO, and locally sourced animal proteins was tough, just wait a few years, because the rise of lab-grown meats is going to add an entirely new layer of complexity to what and how we label our meat choices.
Lab grown meats aren’t even widely available yet, but they’re enough of a concern that the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, asking for new beef labeling requirements.
From the USCA’s petition:
USCA requests that FSIS limit the definition of beef to product from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner. Specifically, FSIS should require that any product labeled as “beef” come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.
The USCA wants to make sure that anything labeled “beef” or “meat” in your grocery store or restaurant comes straight from a once-living cow, without a stopover in a lab.
But you can understand why the USCA might have a, well, beef with these newcomers, as lab-grown meat has received a lot of investor interest recently. Just last week, Tyson Foods announced it had invested an undisclosed sum of money into Memphis Meats, which also counts Cargill and Bill Gates among its investors. Then there’s SuperMeat, the Israeli company that raised $3 million last month for its lab-grown chicken. And lest we forget, Leonardo DiCaprio invested in Beyond Meat last summer.
Before we go any further, let’s pause to accept--and then set aside--the larger moral and philosophical issues that we will have to wrestle with as lab-grown meats become more mainstream. Those are very real, and deserve their own blog post. But before we can even start to have a serious discussion about those issues, we need to solve the basic question about what names we’ll even use.
First, there’s the big question of what we call the entire category. “Lab meat” or “cultured meat” or “clean meat” are options, and each come with their own set of implications. For example, does “clean meat” mean everything else is “dirty?”
From there, things get more complex. Even among just Memphis Meats and SuperMeat, there will different labeling issues. Both currently use animal serum to grow their lab-cultured meat, but both are also working on methods that don’t require any animal byproduct. Each version will require their own label to give conscientious consumers more informed decisions (and to provide a marketing hook). Then there’s Beyond Meat, which isn’t meat at all but made from pea-protein—but is sold in the meat aisle at the grocery stores.
Now imagine going to the store to buy a burger in a couple of years. Your options will be ground beef from once-alive cows, animal serum-based lab meat, non-animal-serum lab meat, and plant-based patties that “bleed.” One can only imagine how new sub-categories will pop up to match existing labels such as “organic,” “non-GMO,” and “local.”
And that doesn’t even touch on the animal proteins being grown from other animals such as SuperMeat’s chicken and Finless Foods’ lab grown fish.
It’s a lot to think about, and we won’t solve it all here. In fact, it’s a topic I’m sure we’ll be discussing a lot here as new products come to market, names are tested and customers begin to show their preferences.
Personally, I’m excited for the expanded options and can’t wait to try them all. But what do you think? How should new lab-grown meats be labeled? Does the USCA have a legitimate point? Leave a comment below and let us know.