Slaughter-Free Meat

This post is another request from my nephew, and one that I think will be interesting to quite a few people out there. Is it a paradox? Or science fiction? Whatever you call it, it’s the future of food.

Meat alternatives have come a long way since the first veggie burger was was released in 1982. They went from rubbery, flavorless discs to wholesome, tasty, and sometimes even gourmet offerings. With plant-based food sales on the rise, the quality of meat alternatives is continuing to improve as well.

There are two main types of meat alternatives, plant-based and lab-grown. Plant-based meat is exactly what it sounds like, products that imitate or substitute meat but are made using plant rather than animal ingredients. These include most veggie burgers you see in the market. The most popular sources of protein in these products are soybeans and peas, though ingredients and nutritional content vary widely by brand.

Lab-grown meat on the other hand, is grown and harvested from cell cultures in a controlled environment rather than from live animals. It may also be called cultured meat, clean meat, cell-based meat, or slaughter-free meat. There are currently no products commercially available, but several companies are working on their development. The cost to produce a “clean” burger patty has dropped significantly from $300K about 5 years ago to $600 today. If the trend continues, cultured meat in grocery stores is just a few years away.

So how do these products taste? There have been a lot of advancements, but there is still significant room for improvement, particularly with texture. Ground meats are easier to replicate, but whole pieces of chicken or steak are more difficult. Once developed, cell-based meat has the potential to mimic the taste and texture of real meat exactly since it’s made of actual tissue. How long it will take to get there is a guess, but I am taking bets- shoot me an email.

As you might guess, there isn’t much of a labeling question when it comes to plant-based products. They don’t claim to be meat, and are usually labeled as vegetarian or vegan, though this may change in the future. Remember my previous post on the labeling of plant-based dairy? The same reasoning will be used to determine whether plant-based meat products can use the term “meat.” The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) has already filed a petition requesting a formal definition of the terms “beef” and “meat” that do not include plant or cell-based products.

There is even more uncertainty in how lab-grown meat will be regulated. The FDA and USDA have decided on a joint regulatory framework, but specifics from each agency have yet to be released. What we do know is the FDA will oversee cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and oversight will transition to the USDA during harvest through to production and labeling of food products. If you need a primer on what foods the USDA and FDA are responsible for, take a look at this post from last year.

There aren’t a ton of specifics on this topic, and a lot is up in the air. It will definitely be interesting to see where these products go and the effect they have our food supply. In the meantime, you can continue debating whether these products should be called meat, are vegan, and if they’re creepy.

Don’t forget that if you have a topic you’d like to see on this blog, leave a comment or send me an email. Seriously! Right now, most of the topics are determined by a 17 year old in Minnesota. Muneer, it’s time to give someone else a turn.

Image by: Umberto Salvagnin

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