Editorial: When meat isn’t meat, can you still call it meat?

Published: 3/14/2019 12:05:00 AM

In the deeply crazy Werner Herzog film classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a group of Spaniards led by a crazed would-be conquistador float down the Amazon River on a raft in search of El Dorado, the City of Gold. On the bank, a group of indigenous people point to the raft and one says, “Meat floating by.”

What qualifies as meat is, apparently, in the eye, or mouth, of the beholder, which is why organizations like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association want to restrict the use of the word “meat” in labeling to products that come from an actual animal and not a plant or batch of dividing animal cells in a vat in a laboratory.

Missouri and several other states have passed laws to do just that to protect ranchers and, critics claim, meat industry profits. The debate mirrors the fight over the right of nondairy products like soy milk, almond milk and new entry oat milk to be called “milk,” which it clearly isn’t. The dairy industry lost that battle with the Food and Drug Administration, which is why the beef industry wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the FDA to make the call.

What we want in product labeling is truth, clarity, completeness and a lack of deception. Careful consumers are unlikely to be fooled into buying one form of faux meat or another instead of the real thing. But what harried shopper hasn’t purchased the flavored form of a nondairy product by accident or grabbed a package of breakfast sausage only to find that it was made from chicken or soybeans, not pork.

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives, backed by investors like Bill Gates, have been soaring, driven by concerns over health, animal welfare and the fate of the planet. Food scientists are also getting better at producing products that look and taste more like the real thing. And athletes such as Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics credit their improved performance to adding plant-based meat products to their diet, giving faux meat a marketing boost.

That’s fine, but we draw the line at plant-based burgers that bleed beet juice. Who’s fooling whom about what?

Cultured beef, which (trigger warning) is made from the cells of cattle fetuses killed in slaughterhouses, according to an article in American Agriculturist magazine, is another matter. What can you call it if not meat? Yet a qualifier is in order.

A package of meat grown in a vat in an industrial facility may look, and perhaps someday even taste, just like burger from a cow, but consumers should be told, in big letters and not mouse print, just what it is they’re buying and the product’s provenance.

Be wary of claims that buying alternatives to meat will combat climate change, improve health or cure hunger. They show promise of doing all those things but too little is known to justify mounting a moral high horse over the matter. Meat alternatives may not even be cheaper than the real thing, at least for long.

Pharmaceutical companies are among the investors in the nascent cultured meat market, which, if they end up being its major producers, will probably lead to the $100 hamburger.

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