What is meat? This question could have weighty ramifications for the poultry and meat industries.

In the June issue of WATT PoultryUSA, we examine the rise of so-called cultured meat. Startup companies and researchers are dabbling in growing meat with minimal animal involvement. This creates serious questions about the potential market impact of the novel protein product as well as existing plant-based meat substitutes.

Semantics or something more?

Cultured meat technology grows muscle tissue from cells collected from the tissue of livestock animals. Proponents say this tissue is meat, despite the fact it is not harvested from an animal. While there’s nothing on the market yet, a number of names are already attached to the product: Clean, cultured, in vitro, lab-grown or lab-produced meat, among others.

Boosters of the technology prefer to use the term clean meat as both an homage to the clean energy movement and an allusion to its slaughter-free production. Others say cultured meat is more appropriate as it refers to how the product is grown. It’s probably wise to go with either of these names because "lab-grown" seems like it will flop with most consumers.

Whatever name wins out in the end, it will be interesting to see if regulators agree the product is “meat” and whether they will allow it to be sold as meat in grocery stores and restaurants. Plant-based alternatives are not new to the market, but there is newfound interest in the products. The Impossible Foods Impossible Burger is being sold as plant-based meat and its continuing to win hearts and minds in the U.S. The burger is now available around the country at both White Castle and Houlihan's and the company is adding production capacity. In the U.K., Dutch company Vivera made waves when the retailer Tesco sold out of its plant-based steak product days after debuting the product.

The regulatory question

Some are already lining up to define these alternative protein products as something apart from conventional meats and prohibit them from being sold as meat. In April 2018, France moved to ban the sale of products using words like "steak, bacon, or sausage" to describe products that are not party or wholly composed of meat. In the U.S., Missouri state legislators are currently moving to prohibit calling a product not derived from harvested livestock meat.

A recent report said the bill is headed for the governor’s desk and, if signed, could be the start of a wave of similar bills around the nation. In the report, a representative of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association said the measure will prevent the misrepresentation of cultured and plant-based products as meat. The move is about protecting the integrity of livestock products and reducing consumer confusion. Calling a plant-protein patty a burger, he argued, weakens the value of products derived from actual animals.

On a national level, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association isn’t holding back against what it calls “fake meat” products. In April 2018, it published a two-point plan for regulating plant-based and cultured meat products. The plan calls on the Food and Drug Administration to take immediate enforcement action against what it considers to be mislabeled, misleading product names for “imitation meat products” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take over jurisdiction of all lab-grown meat products. The association said these actions will help ensure food safety and “ensure consistent labeling practices across all products, and prevent misleading marketing labels such as ‘clean meat.’”

Potential implications

Food safety is a paramount issue for everyone. Food must be safe to eat to protect the integrity of the food supply chain and the credibility of its members. We can likely agree that if a product wants to call itself meat, then it needs to follow the same rules and be subject to the same sanitation laws as everyone else.

What’s unclear is what impact, if any, these laws and proposed policy changes will have on the future market for plant-based and cultured products. No matter what they are called and how they are sold, if the consumer judges the product to be worthy it will sell. Perhaps prohibition could even add value to the product by making it more edgy. For now, the wisest move could be to closely watch the products' progress and maybe even partner with, and invest in, the alternative protein producers.