The beef industry has fired its first shot in the fight against cell-cultured meat

The future of ranchers.
The future of ranchers.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Cullen
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A major sector of the American meat industry is finally taking aim at cell-cultured meat, sparking what promises to be a spirited debate over the future of high-tech meat and how people will buy it.

The US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) has filed a 15-page petition (pdf) with the US Department of Agriculture, asking it to differentiate conventional meat from the cell cultured—known in the industry as “clean meat”—by creating a formal definition. As laid out in the petition, the cattlemen say they envision a definition for “beef” that reads something like this:

[The government] 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.

Further, the association asked the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to narrow the definition of “meat” to the flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional way. Earlier this month, another large and powerful industry group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, listed “fake meat” as one of its five main priorities for 2018 and vowed to “protect our industry and consumers from fake meat and misleading labels.”

In asking “meat” to be defined, the nation’s ranchers are signaling they’re ready to force a fight that has, until now, only been whispered about within the broader industry. It marks an important moment, one that promises to pit Silicon Valley foodie futurism against longtime food-industry players.

The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports and lobbies on behalf of meat- alternative companies, questions whether the cattlemen filed their petition with the correct federal agency. It remains unclear which government office will regulate clean meat, but the US Food and Drug Administration—not the Department of Agriculture—is the clear regulator of plant-based food labeling. The institute says government food definitions should not be used to police competition.

“It seems like they’re trying to meddle in the free market,” Jessica Almy, policy director at the institute, tells Quartz.

An industry split over methods

Battle lines over the issue won’t be neatly drawn. The meat industry is as large as it is complex, comprised of farmers, ranchers, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and more. Because of the way the beef, pork, and poultry industries are individually arranged, it is not a given that they will align on the issue of clean meat.

That’s because poultry production and much of pork are vertically integrated—major processors such as Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Pilgrim’s Pride own their animals at birth and hire contractors to deliver them up the supply chain to slaughterhouses.

In recent months, Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in clean meat startups, drawn to the technology for its efficiencies and consumer interest. It is conceivable that pork and poultry trade groups will be less likely to speak out against the technology.

The beef industry, more fragmented, is very different. A constellation of ranchers across the US own their animals. They feed them, raise them, and then sell them at auction to feedlots, which in turn sell the animals to meat packers. Ranchers, less beholden to the interests of the major companies, are theoretically more likely to voice their concerns about the rise of clean meat and its potential threat to their livelihoods.

It’s too early to say whether pork and poultry producers will fall in with them. The National Pork Producers Council tells Quartz the organization has yet to discuss the issue in a formal way, and that it might come up at its annual meeting later this month in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We do recognize that this is something that’s out there and it’s one of those things that, like other issues, we’ll want to get ahead of it and not just react to it,” said spokesman Dave Warner.

Likewise, the National Chicken Council has not staked a position, either. “This is an issue that is on our radar screen, but we do not have an official policy at this time,” spokesman Tom Super wrote in an email.

Clean meat has gotten an increasing amount of attention as startup companies around the world have edged closer to getting a product to market. An analyst at Rabobank, one of the world’s largest agricultural-commodity banks, published a report that said usurping just 5% market share from conventional meat would make clean meat a viable product.

A question of  free speech?

Once the US government does sort how clean meat is regulated, any definition of “meat” should not prohibit a clean meat company from using the term, Almy says, contending it would be out-of-line for the government to interfere with a producer’s ability to put labels on packages to clearly communicate to consumers.

“This new petition…runs afoul of the First Amendment,” she says. “In some ways it’s insulting. It’s really clear that it’s commercial speech, and it’s a lot like the the soy-milk debate. These producers have a First Amendment right to label their products clearly and in a way that consumers can understand.”

In some ways, the debate over labeling and definitions is a compliment to the meat-alternative market because it means they have become imposing enough to get onto the radars of once-unassailable industries. Still, it would be wrong to try and police competitors by asking the government to create restrictive food definitions, Almy says: “If they really think their products are superior, then it should sell on its merits.”

The Good Food Institute says it plans to file a formal response to the cattlemen’s petition soon.