Fake Meat: When "Beef" Isn't Beef

Grilling season is not far off! There is nothing better than a sizzling steak right off the grill. We all know the type of steak determines the flavor -- grass-fed, grain-fed, Kobe, Wagyu, NY strip, filet, etc. Recent technological advances may have added more choices for you to make -- lab-grown, plant-based, "meat analogues." 

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association recently requested an official definition of "beef" from the USDA. It contends food labeled "beef" should come from cattle. Opponents claim consumers know what they are buying when they purchase meat alternatives and that the First Amendment protects companies' rights to label food. Dairy farmers have been fighting this battle for some time now (think soy, almond, or coconut "milk"). 

There are at least two groups of beef alternatives that would like to market themselves as beef: lab-grown and plant-based. Lab-grown or "clean meat" comes from tissue grown in a lab from a small amount of animal stem cells. Lab-grown "clean meat" has some benefits: it does not require the land or natural resources cattle need. But its drawbacks may outweigh those advantages: "meat" grown in a test tube will carry a stigma and likely won't be able to replicate the flavors we get from real cattle based on their diet and breed. We are years away from lab-grown meat being scalable or cost-effective.

Plant-based "beef" includes veggie and quinoa burgers or other products made from plants but intended to mimic animal flavor. Companies have developed meatless burgers that sizzle and bleed, are packaged like meat products, and are sold next to real meat in the grocery store. 

Sometimes labels are little more than a marketing gimmick. For example, "GMO-free wheat" (no such thing as commercial GMO wheat) or "farm-fresh all natural" eggs (these terms are literally meaningless). But labels can help consumers know more about the product they are purchasing. E.g., UEP certified eggs, USDA Certified Organic, or Indiana Grown. Even more importantly, labels should tell us just what we are eating. We expect a package labeled "corn" to really be corn, and not mustard. Meat labeled "chicken wings" should be from chickens, not crows. Consumers deserve clarity in their food labels. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in charge of policing label claims on plant-based foods. The FDA has been looking at what the label "natural" means after numerous lawsuits challenging the term. The United States Department of Agriculture generally regulates meat labels. Which agency should have jurisdiction over lab-grown or plant-based burgers? 

This is just the beginning in an important discussion about technology, agriculture, and our eating habits. Labels, taste, consumer demands, and price all will play a role.

For me? I'll take a Delmonico, grilled rare and bloody.