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Why cattle ranchers and tech start-ups are beefing over the meaning of ‘meat’

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It may be years before consumers can buy burgers grown in labs or tenderloins cultured in test tubes. But as investors pour funds into the “clean meat” industry, beef producers are petitioning regulators to ensure the new products can't bear “meat” or “beef” labels.

Beef producers say such labels risk obscuring the origins of these new products — meats that are grown from cell cultures in a lab, not on animals. And while producers claim they aren't concerned about future competition, the names that these products carry could ultimately determine their success.

Is this the beginning of the end of meat?

“Clean meat” has a certain ring to it, after all. “Lab-grown cultured meat product” sounds like a cousin of pink slime. It's the reason beef producers and clean meat advocates are committed to a long-term battle over the terms used to describe cultured meat, and how those terms are defined.

“We are very concerned about truthful labeling,” said Lia Biondo, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “Our members want to give consumers all of the information they need to make decisions.”

Biondo's group is not alone in this, though it did fire the first shots in the clean meat wars. Last month, the Cattlemen's Association filed a petition asking the Agriculture Department to prevent cultured and plant-based meat companies from using the terms “beef” and “meat.” While USDA has acknowledged the petition, it could be years before the agency responds formally, if it responds at all.

Separately, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a larger industry group, has begun meeting with the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration to discuss the regulation of cultured meat and future product labels.

The organization is concerned not only about use of the term “clean meat” but also about the potential use of USDA quality seals and the disclosure of the fact that cultured meat products don’t come from conventional animals, said Danielle Beck, NCBA's director of governmental affairs. Beef producers don't want consumers to get the impression that cultured meat undergoes the same food safety and quality inspections as conventional beef, Beck added.

Both organizations are reacting to the rapid growth of a handful of buzzy, well-funded start-ups seeking to clone meat from animal tissue samples. While the field is still small, recent investments by the big-meat firms Tyson and Cargill have solidified the impression that it could become a major force, propelled by growing concerns about the environmental costs of animal agriculture.

Beef producers say they are worried that consumers will not fully understand the difference between their products and those of their new competitors.

The leading meat alternatives currently on the market, such as Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger, typically use terms such as “plant-based.” Those products, which use isolated plant proteins to mimic beef, are essentially the second generation of the soy- and bean-based veggie burgers that became popular in the 1980s and '90s.

Cultured meat will go one step further still, and it's unclear how those products will brand and differentiate themselves. Ranchers have already begun bristling at the aggressive branding of  “clean meat” over “cultured” or “lab-grown” meat that more clearly declare its products’ origins.

“We have a big problem with that,” said Beck, of the NCBA. “It implies something negative about our own product, and we don’t believe that has a basis in science or fact.”

But “clean meat” has no intention of giving up its name, said Jessica Almy, policy director at the Good Food Institute, which advocates for alternatives to conventional animal meat. Almy argues that regulators don't have the power to selectively regulate the use of common food names. And even if they did, she added, there's no compelling reason to do so here, since there's not yet any evidence that consumers feel deceived by the use of words like “meat” and “beef” to describe lab-grown proteins.

The term clean meat, in particular, is intended to communicate the environmental benefits of cultured meat products, Almy said.

“I think the Cattlemen’s Association should face the competition head on,” Almy said. “If they really believe in their product, they should let consumers decide in the marketplace for themselves.”

Of course, the name that's eventually given to “clean meat” could have a dramatic effect on its performance in the market — a fact that is not lost on cattle ranchers. Food label disclosures always carry a cost for someone, said Glynn Tonsor, a Kansas State agricultural economist.

Right now, Tonsor added, clean meat is a niche market that does not threaten beef sales. To become a threat, clean meat will have to win over mainstream meat-eaters — and the label it sells under will affect that.

“There are already a lot of alternative proteins out there,” Tonsor said — from chicken to Boca Burgers. “But this is the first one that's using the term 'meat' in its marketing and on its labels.”

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