There’s a growing battle between fake meat startups and Big Meat, and neither side is backing down

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Flickr / Marc Dalmulder

  • In February 2018, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition to the USDA arguing that lab-grown and plant-based meat startups should not be able to call their products “meat,” since they do not come from slaughtered animals.
  • The startups say they are not backing down.
  • While lab-grown meat products are not available to the public yet, a number of startups are attempting to make it more commercially feasible. Plant-based meat companies, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, already sell their items at supermarkets and restaurants.
  • The debate will likely intensify.

For the first time, a major part of the US beef industry is taking aim at tech startups creating meat – without animals – that tastes like the real thing. (These startups fall into two major buckets: companies that make meat from plants, and others that are growing real meat using animal cells in labs.)

In February, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a 15-page petition to the USDA asking the agency to strictly define “meat” and “beef” as animals raised and slaughtered. The group argues that displaying plant-based meat products next to traditional meat items could confuse customers, especially when they’re labeled as chicken or beef.

Plant-based and lab-grown meat startups are refuting that argument.

Ethan Brown, the CEO of the plant-based foods company Beyond Meat, believes that its burgers serve the same purpose as traditional beef.

“Why can’t we call it a piece of meat? It has the same things in it, it presents the same way, and it performs the same function,” he told Capital Public Radio. “A lot like we call the mobile phone a phone, and we don’t call it a fake landline.”

Josh Tetrick, CEO of the food-tech startup Just (formerly called Hampton Creek), told Business Insider that tech companies and the beef industry should work together on creating the future of meat. Just produces plant-based foods, like eggless mayonnaise, and it’s also working on a cultured – or lab-grown – meat product.

“I understand better than most the nuances and challenges of product naming,” said Tetrick, who won a similar battle over labeling Just’s eggless mayo as mayo in 2015. “My biggest takeaway is this: The leaders of the national and global meat industry want to feed the world animal protein in a sustainable way. That’s a shared interest that should be celebrated.”

Big Beef is divided on how to fight fake meat startups

By filing an official motion, the country’s ranchers are showing cultured and plant-based meat startups that they are prepared to fight for the definition of meat.

“[The government] should require that any product labeled as ‘beef’ come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells,” the USCA wrote.

An Impossible Foods employee works at the company's headquarters in Redwood City, California.

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An Impossible Foods employee works at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, California.
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Melia Robinson

But not every group within the beef industry agrees on how to challenge these startups.

In April, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) sent a letter to the USDA, arguing for the opposite ruling as the USCA.

The NCBA’s position may seem counterintuitive, but as Quartz notes, the move is likely part of a larger strategy to fight fake meat startups. By putting their products under the oversight of the USDA, lab-grown and plant-based meat companies would need to adhere to the USDA’s existing regulations on meat, which could hamper research and development.

Fake meat startups – attracting hundreds of millions in venture capital – say that they’re not backing down

In the petition, the USCA mentions Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, companies that are each backed by millions in VC funding. The group also calls out Memphis Meats, Just, and Mosa Meats – three startups that are racing to bring lab-grown meat to market.

Recent venture-capital investments could make that more commercially feasible.

In January, Tyson Foods announced that it had invested in Memphis Meats, joining the startup’s list of prominent backers including Bill Gates, the food giant Cargill, and Richard Branson.

Plant-based meat companies have also caught the attention of VCs. In 2016, Tyson also bought a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, a company that sells plant-based burgers, chicken, and sausage in grocery stores. Meanwhile, Impossible Foods has chosen to sell its burgers exclusively in restaurants. Until recently, Impossible’s patties were only available at select food establishments for over $10. But in April, the company debuted $2 sliders at 140 White Castle locations across New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Just could be the first cultured food startup to get its meat to stores. Last year, the company said it plans to do so by the end of this year. Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats say they will start offering their products to the public in 2021.

“We have made progress in all areas that needed improvements – creating fat tissue, creating color, moving towards serum-free culturing – but we’re not there yet,” Mosa Meats CEO Peter Verstrate previously told Business Insider.

Proponents of meat-mimicking food argue that it’s more environmentally friendly than raising traditional livestock.

This month, a group of scientists from the University of Oxford published the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet. The new research suggests that without dairy and meat consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union, and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Globally, traditional animal farming accounts for about 18% of all greenhouse emissions, uses 47,000 square miles of land annually, and exhausts 70% of the world’s water.

As startups improve their meat alternatives, the debate over what can legally be considered meat will likely intensify.