The Ins and Outs of Fake Meat

By Gilda Bryant, Contributing Editor

Lab-cultured meat products may be coming to a meat counter near you. Also known as fake meat, cell-based meat or alternative protein, ranchers and consumers are scrambling to learn more as they consider the effects on the beef industry.

Meat-based companies culture animal muscle cells in bioreactors, while manufacturers create plant-based products with pea, wheat, soybeans, gluten and a host of additives, including salt. Worldwide, businesses are racing to develop technology to feed the world; there are at least 27 corporations producing plant- or meat-based protein in the United States. Currently, plant-based products are available to consumers, while lab-grown meats from any species are not.

Alternative meat developers say their products are safer to eat than beef currently produced in the United States. They assert their production is more energy efficient and environmentally friendly, while sparing live cattle from harvest. Most experts estimate that some meat-cultured brands will be available to consumers around 2021, although they will probably be expensive.

However, this new industry faces significant problems. Plant-based burgers like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper™, fill a niche market. While these products seem safe to eat, only comprehensive testing will tell for sure. Other companies make patties containing beet juice for deeper color and to simulate blood, generating an “ick” factor for some consumers.

Many Americans, separated from production agriculture by three or more generations, fail to understand food production basics, or how beef producers humanely provide safe, tasty, nutritious beef. For instance, they firmly believe cattle produce 50 percent of the earth’s greenhouse gases, although scientific research shows they generate less than five percent.

Ty Lawrence, Ph.D., director of the Beef Carcass Research Center at West Texas A&M University, argues that several crucial factors are lost in lab-grown meat conversations. He says muscle cells placed in growth nutrients, including hormones, will divide at the optimum temperature.

“These cells, even if they coalesce into a muscle, will never be like those from a living, breathing, walking animal,” Lawrence explains. “Because it’s not a muscle that contracted, generated force and moved a bone, the texture will be more like Jell-O. One of the big components of beef is connective tissue. I’m skeptical these cells will have the same matrix of fats, connective tissue and myofibrillar tissue that a muscle from a living animal has.”

Lawrence says these cells should be opaque or nearly colorless because the animal never breathed or lived. The color of muscle reflects its myoglobin content and, indirectly, its iron content. Darker red tissue such as beef has a higher quantity of iron than pork or poultry. He doubts plant-based meat will be high in B vitamins or the essential amino acids humans require for optimum health.

The taste component is one of the driving factors of beef product sales. “If you’re growing muscle cells in a Petri dish, the only lipid [fat] available is a thin layer surrounding each cell,” Lawrence reveals. “The lab-generated product would be extremely lean and bland.”

It requires millions of calories of energy for a steer to reach 1,500 pounds. It eats grass as a calf and stocker animal, then consumes corn and other high-calorie inputs at the feedyard to provide 625 pounds of boneless beef. For the identical amount of lab-cultured meat, the same quantity of nutrients a live animal would have consumed must go into that lab-grown product. Lawrence is unconvinced this new technology is more efficient than today’s method of raising cattle. He believes the company saves no nutrients or energy and may even utilize more resources than are currently used in beef production.

“Focus on doing a fantastic job of producing a healthy, safe and nutritious protein product,” Lawrence advises beef producers. “Consumers should ask, ‘What is the best nutrition for my body?’ Look at the protein, amino acid content, iron, B vitamins and lipid content.”

Oversight is key

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is the oldest and largest national trade association for U.S. cattle producers. NCBA’s priority is to produce the safest, most nutritious and affordable beef products for consumers. A growing number of deceptive food product labels, especially those from lab-cultured meat, have alarmed the NCBA.

This organization is working with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop fake meat oversight protocols. Danielle Beck, NCBA’s senior director of government affairs, says the USDA and FDA have agreed on lab-grown meat oversight procedures.

The FDA will oversee the primary evaluation of materials, controls, initial cell collection and development, and the proliferation and differentiation of cells through the time of harvest. FDA and USDA will collaborate during the transition from FDA to USDA oversight during the pre-harvest stage.

“Then the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) will have jurisdiction over harvesting cells cultured from livestock for producing meat on the day of processing, packaging and labeling,” Beck explains. “USDA will also be in charge of post-market enforcement, including product recalls and determining the nutritional value.”

According to Beck, California companies Memphis Meat and JUST, INC., are in research and development stages until the USDA and FDA agree on risk and hazard considerations, and nomenclature. Currently, these products cannot legally enter the market. There is a mandatory pre-approval process in which every company must develop USDA-approved labels before products can be legally sold. USDA inspects cattle harvesting facilities and businesses that provide additional daily processing because there are unique food safety risks with products derived from meat.

“Our producers have gladly complied with a stringent set of food safety regulations for years because they recognize the importance of putting consumers first,” Beck reports. “We believe the lab-grown products that will eventually compete with beef should be held to the same set of rigorous standards to maintain consumer safety.

“Not only could disparaging terms like clean meat be utilized, but the packaging could mislead consumers. We urged the USDA to use strict labeling with primary oversight of lab-grown products because this is the best way to ensure the varied claims our producers hope to compete with. Disparaging allegations like clean meat will not be on the packaging under USDA jurisdiction.”

The NCBA would like more clarification on antibiotic and hormone use in the production of lab-grown meat. The FDA has agreed to conduct pre-market evaluations of all production processes and test the safety of finished products for consumers. If cell-based meat manufacturers assert their products are equal to beef cuts, they should provide evidence to justify their claims. Independent organizations such as the American Meat Science Institute should be able to test products.

“Several plant-based products on the market are labeled in a way that is confusing to consumers,” Beck warns. “We want our producers to know we’re looking at how we can best bring those products into compliance with the law. Plant-based meat alternatives are less than one percent of the market share. Per capita consumption of beef is at an all-time high; this is the fourth consecutive year that beef demand has increased. Consumers clearly crave beef and its taste. It’s hard to replicate that.”

It is difficult to speculate on the impact plant- and meat-based alternatives will have on the industry. “Do your job and continue to communicate the benefits of beef production,” Beck concludes. “It’s safe, affordable and delicious. Tell your story from nutrition and environmental standpoints. As long as beef producers tell their story, the facts are on our side.”

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) has also worked to ensure cell-based product food labels are not deceptive or misleading. Sarah Little, NAMI’s vice president of communications, says accurate labeling enables consumers to make informed choices about the products they buy.

“As an industry, we support a fair and competitive marketplace that lets consumers decide what food products make sense for them,” Little explains. “That is why the Meat Institute worked hard to ensure the processing of cell-based meat and poultry products be regulated, including labels approval by the USDA. This ensures a level playing field for all meat products in the marketplace.”

Little sees consistent and robust demand from the American consumer and says that more than 95 percent of Americans enjoy meat, with taste and affordability as key considerations.

“The role cell-based products will play in meeting growing consumer demand is unknown,” Little concludes. “Kudos, however, to those innovative scientists for their determination; imitation is the highest form of flattery.”