A massive sector of the food economy is grappling with a prickly modern question about a millennia-old product, stretching romantic ideas we have about food being best when it is “traditional,” as humans seek to to innovate it and feed the planet’s growing population.
At its root, the question tests our ability and willingness to change the way we perceive food we grew up eating. In this case, companies in the fast-paced technology sector are looking to work their magic on meat. Is it possible to respect the notion of “traditional” foods while also allowing room for fresh innovation?
As public concerns over health and climate change grow, a bevy of new food companies are challenging entrenched brands and products, setting new trends and giving people more Americans choice in their neighborhood grocery stores. The once-sleepy dairy aisle is now an explosion of sustainable, non-dairy plant-based options: milks and yogurts made from coconuts, soy, cashews, almonds, and even pili nuts grown on volcanic rocks. Eggless mayonnaise has gained traction against conventional condiments, and now cell-cultured meats—which don’t require the slaughter of an animal—are close to being ready for the market.
For each of those products, conventional producers in the US—dairy farmers, egg farmers, and cattlemen—have tried to use the federal government as a tool to slow their path to the marketplace. That has most recently been apparent among beef producers, who are keen to throw up roadblocks as companies making cell-cultured meat (also known as “clean meat”) look to make the leap from laboratories to supermarkets and restaurants.
The debate unfolding in Washington may sound in-the-weeds-wonky—a pissing match between powerful food producers and upstart food technologists—but it belies a larger and more pressing cultural conversation taking place about the nature of food, how it evolves, and what we expect of it.
In February, one of the largest beef industry lobbying groups filed a petition with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking it to define meat as a product that comes from the carcass of an animal that has been slaughtered in a traditional manner. But what exactly constitutes “traditional”? As some people in the food industry have put it, the ways we make and produce our food have never been anchored to static methods; production practices have changed drastically, many times, through the years. The Good Food Institute, which supports and lobbies on behalf of clean-meat companies, says as much in their formal response (pdf) to the petition.
“Methods of cattle production today would have been unthinkable to our great-grandparents,” the group writes. “If USDA were to limit meat and beef terms to the flesh of cattle born, raised, and killed in ‘the traditional manner,’ almost no meat on the market today could bear such labels.”
When ranching groups talk about clean meat publicly, they often use pejoratives such as “fake meat,” eliciting visuals of scientists in white lab coats stirring clumps of cells in petri dishes. They seek to transmit a sense that clean meat is a weird technology, so many steps removed from the natural world that people should be concerned. But while most people don’t consider technology when sipping wine or biting into a banana, to suggest that food and tech are mutually exclusive is dishonest, says Sarah Lohman, a food historian and author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.
“We forget how close food is to technology,” Lohman says. “Every little thing that we eat has been bred for very specific characteristics. People have fought about the breeding of apples the same way people think about building new technology.”
When ranchers use words such as “traditional” to draw lines of demarcation between their products and clean-meat products, they’re injecting romantic notions about food into the public conversation. That can be dangerous, Lohman says, because romanticizing food is a luxury for people who have access to food and enough money to buy it. It’s easier for those people to ignore food production’s impact on the climate, and the need to feed many more people, most of whom do not have those same luxuries.
Besides, even some of our most ancient foods require very scientific processes for production, Lohman says. “Making bread is science. You have to make it in a specific way to make it turn out correctly.”
It’s a point echoed by Uma Valeti, the CEO of Silicon Valley-based Memphis Meats. He says that the ascendance of white bread in America offered a higher-tech, nutrient-fortified version of a food that’s been made for thousands of years, but nobody today disputes whether white bread is, in fact, bread. And nobody would claim pre-sliced bread—that monolith of human ingenuity—is somehow lesser.
“We have a very intimate relationship with food, and food producers have been some of the biggest innovators,” Valeti says. “They are technologists at heart. They have been feeding more and more people with less and less. I think being able to communicate that is really important.”
In that same vein, Memphis Meats on May 2 became the first clean-meat company to formally file a response to the US Cattlemen Association’s petition. Memphis Meats argues that its product is real meat, and says it wants to work with the government and other stakeholders to find a way to better develop high-protein foods that consumers want. To create an exclusionary definition for meat would only stifle future innovation in meat and poultry production and “encourage a technological standstill at a time when the global need for protein-based foods is on an exponential rise,” the company writes.
Furthermore, Valeti says he thinks the government does not need to create a new regulatory path for high-tech, cell-cultured foods that hope to get to market. The new products do create something of a paradigm shift, he says, but the existing framework used by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA are sufficient when working to “reinterpret new foods coming through.” That means cell-cultured products could likely be jointly regulated by both agencies using the FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) program and the USDA’s labeling for meat, with the understanding that clean meat is “real meat.”
Josh Tetrick, the CEO of JUST, another Silicon Valley-based clean-meat company, seems to be aligned with Valeti. “The leaders of the national and global meat industry want to feed the world animal protein in a sustainable way,” Tetrick says. “That’s a shared interest that should be celebrated. And, to that end, rather than piling on with paperwork, I call upon the USDA and FDA to convene a series of sessions where we can meaningfully talk about the future of food production together.”
Some major players in the conventional-meat industry might be amenable. That’s because the political battle lines over this issue within the meat industry can’t be neatly drawn. Animal agriculture is as complex as it is large, comprised of farmers, ranchers, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and more.
Individual farmers and producers may detest the idea of clean meat, but the massive companies they sell their animals to—places such as Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, and others—do have interest. Cargill and Tyson have both even invested in Memphis Meats. Tyson Foods’ venture-capital arm on May 2 announced it is investing $2.2 million in Jerusalem-based clean-meat company Future Meat Technologies. And Europe’s third-largest poultry producer in January announced it was investing in another Israeli clean meat-company, SuperMeat. All are signs that the meat industry is split over whether it should fight clean meat or embrace it, but that the wealthiest players in the industry are leaning toward embracing it.
For the ranchers and individual farmers most worried about clean meat, a splintered industry means ideas they have about so-called “traditional” practices are even more exposed to change from high-tech innovation. Those producers are aware that corporate interests and monied billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson are eager to pump their money into this new technology, but whether they can resist innovation will depend on impending conversations in Washington, as regulators figure out how to deal with clean meats.
How those conversations play out will shape the future of meat and determine how quickly those new products can get in front of consumers and potentially help in the fight against climate change.