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The meat of the matter

Opinion

So far not even one ounce of clean meat — real meat grown from animal cells rather than animal slaughter — has been sold in the United States, yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already getting an earful about the future food.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some in the conventional animal agriculture industry feel threatened by the advent clean meat and the tens of millions of dollars of investment pouring in to commercialize it. That’s why the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), for example, recently petitioned USDA to prohibit clean meat-makers from even calling their products “meat.” What is perhaps surprising, however, is who disagrees with those cattlemen.

Sure, the clean meat companies and their backers in the food safety, animal welfare, and environmental communities are on record opposing the USCA petition. But who else has a beef with the cattlemen on this issue? The North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

In comments to the USDA asking the agency to deny USCA’s petition, the meat processing trade group panned the cattlemen’s argument as “ill-considered,” even going so far as to predict that its granting would “cause chaos in the marketplace.”

One reason for the beef relates to varying desires as to whether USDA or the Food and Drug Administration would regulate clean meat. But the meat of the matter has more to do with a divergence of interests within the meat industry.

Meat giants Tyson and Cargill are members of NAMI, and both have made investments in clean meat start-up Memphis Meats. In other words, since these companies are more in the business of selling meat rather than raising animals, they see clean meat as a potential opportunity rather than the threat that cattle ranchers fear. As NAMI correctly puts it: “It would be unwise for FSIS to adopt an interpretation that weds the livestock and meat industry to practices and procedures used today, when tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, a new and better manner may come along.”

Forward-thinking companies like Cargill and Tyson might be taking a page from filmmaker Canon’s playbook. As a 2006 USA Today story pointed out, “In the pre-digital age of photography, no brand was more synonymous with imaging than Eastman Kodak. … Now, it’s in a heated battle with Japanese-owned Canon for market dominance — and by many measures, Canon is ahead.”

As Canon and Kodak were battling each other for supremacy in the camera industry, the emerging digital era threatened to change everything, putting the makers of gelatin film out of business altogether. Rather than keep pace with the new technology, Kodak lagged, even as Canon dove headfirst into the digital camera sector. The result couldn’t have been more predictable: Canon is now the earth’s leading digital camera brand, while Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

The USCA’s argument would be tantamount to Kodak in 2006 trying to ban digital pictures from being called “photographs.” Despite the cattlemen’s protest, it’s clear that clean meat is of course still meat in every reasonable way consumers conceive of it, right down to the cellular level.

Just like film, agriculture is dynamic, and methods of production will continue to improve and adapt over time. Already the FDA has declared, “Given information we have at the time, it seems reasonable to think that cultured meat, if manufactured in accordance with appropriate safety standards and all relevant regulations, could be consumed safely.”

The barnyard infighting occuring in the meat industry will likely continue as clean meat heads toward commercialization. And like in so many other industries, those companies that embrace innovation rather than cling to the status quo are likely to be the winners.

About the author: Paul Shapiro took his first bite of clean meat in 2014. In addition to being among the first clean meat consumers, Shapiro is a TEDx speaker, the founder of Compassion Over Killing, an inductee into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame, and served for 13 years as a spokesperson and vice president for the Humane Society of the United States.  “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World” is his first book.

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