Special Interest Groups Want to Slaughter the Lab-Grown Beef Business

The cattle industry would rather rent-seek than compete.


Memphis Meats recently unveiled the first lab-grown chicken tender. Photo credit: Ferrari/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Earlier this week, the nation's largest lobby group for beef producers asked federal regulators to prevent the makers of lab-grown meat from calling their products, well, meat.

In comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) asked the agency to support "meaningful protection for beef nomenclature." Such support, the group argues in its comments, would require the USDA to "limit the definition of 'meat' to tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner."

What exactly are they so worked up about?

Lab-grown meats are made by taking cell samples from living animals and reproducing them in a lab. Animal-rights and animal-welfare supporters dig lab-grown meats because they don't require the slaughter of cows or other animals. Proponents claim these foods—just like plant-based meat imitations—are better for the people, the environment, and animals. Opponents, namely beef industry groups like the NCBA, view lab-grown meats as a growing (and misleading) threat to their livelihood.

Plant-based alternatives to meat products that mimic the look and taste of those meat products—e.g., Boca Burgers—have existed for decades. But lab-grown meat is close to debuting, perhaps before the end of 2018. Some have predicted "a meatless food industry featuring lab-grown meat, seafood substitutes, and insect protein [may] be the future of food[.]"

This potential future raises some important questions. How should lab-grown meats be labeled? Should the government set mandatory standards for such labeling?

The NCBA petition urges the FDA and USDA "to prevent misleading marketing labels such as 'clean meat,'" a term lab-grown meat proponents use to distinguish lab-grown meat from traditional meat products.

The NCBA's preferred approach, the group says, "would exclude lab-grown or cell cultured meat products" from USDA oversight (shifting oversight of such products to the FDA, which regulates most foods that don't contain beef, pork, or poultry).

The NCBA submitted its comments in response to a petition submitted in February by another beef lobby, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA), that urges the USDA to take similar steps to combat what critics dub "fake meat."

The NCBA opposes the USCA petition because, it argues, it doesn't go far enough to squash competitors. Not surprisingly, at least one animal-rights group has commented in opposition to the petition, arguing it goes too far.

While the USDA gathers responses to the petitions, Congress is also moving on the matter.

Last month, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan government agency that advises Congress, to "investigate what regulatory framework, if any, exists for cell-cultured food products and how this framework compares to other international approaches."

I usually disagree with DeLauro on food-policy matters—she's a longtime sponsor of legislation to adopt a national soda tax, for example—but I think her call for the GAO to look into the matter is reasonable.

A good analog to the lab-grown meat issue is GMO labeling. Opponents of GMOs have long argued such laws are necessary to help consumers make informed choices. But, just like beef producers are doing with the issue of labeling lab-grown meat, the reality is GMO opponents mostly just want the government to impose regulations that malign their competitors' products.

But the question of how to label lab-grown meat doesn't offer a slam-dunk answer for either side. On the one hand, meat grown in a lab is undoubtedly produced using a process that differs from the traditional livestock-rearing process. The latter involves raising and killing a living animal, for example, while the former does not. On the other hand, every cell in a lab-grown meat product comes from an animal. A cell taken from a steak is likely indistinguishable from a comparable cell taken from a "steak" grown in a lab.

"I don't think use of the terms 'meat' or 'beef' is anything the government generally or the USDA in particular should regulate," I told Reason's Kayla Stetzel last month. "If the USCA has a problem with its competitors trying to use those words, they should sue."

"It's too early to say whether consumers would be misled by using the word 'meat' to describe lab-grown beef," Stetzel wrote. "Indeed, removing the label could be more confusing."

In that same piece, I characterized the issue as "a legal rather than a regulatory matter." Stetzel's point, which I agree with, suggests both that government action would likely add to any confusion and that courts are indeed the proper forum in which to settle this beef.

NEXT: Canada Kidnapped Native Children to 'Kill the Indian' in Them

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  1. “Fake meat” or meaet or maeet or some such… Or Lmeat for Lab-meat… And beuef or boeef or “Fake Beef” or Lbeef for Lab-beef…

    Just get creative with the language!!! What’s the beef with the beefers in the beef business anyway!?!?!

    Device a new approved name that is not 12 paragraphs long and be done with it!!!

    Where’s the beef?!?!?

    1. Vat-meat, vat-beef, vat-lamb, vat-chicken… There are already good terms from science fiction, so no need to get creative.

      What is needed is an up-front term to distinguish between the stuff cut out of an animal and the stuff grown in a vat. Because whether a consumer particularly wants the animal flesh and not the bioscience-vat-stuff, or particularly wants the vat-grown tissue and not the slaughtered-animal stuff – in either case the consumer deserves to know without having to read fine print.

      1. How about a third alternative? We GMO the pig and add the gecko-like ability to re-grow a lost limb? Every 4 or 6 months, we go and cut the hind legs off of the pig, and they re-grow the lost limbs? It’s REAL meat now, with a little GMO tinkering, is all! Label it GMO and be done with it? It COULD be more efficient, you know, because ONE set of internal organs, not containing many delectable edible parts, could be used to generate MANY cycles of prime meat!

        Plain GMO label is all? Or maybe “Renewable Pork”?

        1. A visitor chats with a farmer. A 3-legged pig saunters by. The visitor asks about the pig.

          “Oh, that’s my hero-pig! He saved my barn once. It was starting to burn down, and hero-pig came knocking at my door, in the middle of the night. One time the tractor rolled on me, I was pinned down, way out in the back 40, and he went and alerted my wife! Some hero pig, he is!”

          “So how did he lose his leg? In one of his pig-hero acts?”

          “No, it’s simply this: With a hero-pig like that, we didn’t want to eat him all at once!”

          1. Then there’s the traveling salesman whose car is outrun by a chicken, so he follows into into a nearby farm and sees a bunch of three legged chickens wandering around. Farmer explains they are useful for Sunday dinners. You and the missus is sitting down to dinner when the parson drops by, now you’ve got an extra drumstick.

            The salesman asks what it tastes like.

            “Don’t know. Ain’t caught one yet.”

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        2. By the time that human bio-tech actually makes vat-meat PRACTICAL AND AFFORDABLE, we’ll be able to do the gecko-pig-hybrid-thing, for renewable-limb meat, I suspect. At first glance it sets off all sorts of innate squeamishness ethical alarm bells, and the animal-rights people would burn down the galaxy, right?

          But then think some more… By the time that all of this gets to be practical, you would bio-engineer the pig to lay there and ENJOY THE HELL OUT OF the process of limb amputation and re-growth!!! Crude version, stick an electrode into the pleasure center of the pig’s brains… By then, we’ll be able to do a MUCH better job of sending the pig into near-eternal orgasms of pig bliss, for this entire process! Ethics problem solved!

          1. ENJOY THE HELL OUT OF


          2. Clearly, you sad Americans have not enjoyed the pleasure of the sadly-late Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) from the early 1980s. In the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a talking cow that wanders by the customers and advises them on which parts of him are the tastiest. He has been genetically engineered to want to be eaten.

        3. Renewable! Good one! Back in June 1907 when neutral-spirit ethanol mimicked “real” whiskey, Atty Gen’l Charles J. Bonaparte issued a funny circular saying they could call it “imitation whiskey”, W Pluribus Unun”, and “n-word whiskey.” Nowadays he’d be hauled up before CNN and lynched.

        4. This is perfect. Then all we need is a small fleet of GMO’d ‘volunteer’ organ donors to meet the nation’s need for failed organs.

      2. “Vat-meat, vat-beef, vat-lamb, vat-chicken… ”

        So I’ll fill y’all in, even BEFORE I post this to my Facebook page! I got invited to the Bat Cave, where we dined on fine Bat China! Alfred served us fine foods from the Bat Vats; we had a taste-testing session!

        Results were:
        The Bat-Vat, vat-rat meat, has got the Bat-Vat, vat-cat meat beat!
        If’n ya don’t like that, I’ll eat my Bat-Vat hat! Take THAT!

        More soon? Same bat time, same bat channel!

        1. MORE breaking news from the Bat Cave!

          We discovered that the tip of the mammalian teat is very sweet meat! Accordingly…

          The Bat-Vat, vat-rat sweet teat meat, has got the Bat-Vat, vat-cat sweet teat meat beat!

      3. Pharm fresh meat…

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    3. Frankenbeaf, just like Fankenfish works for me.

  2. There is a problem with the whole idea of in vitro meat, which I am surprised no one else has pointed out (that I have seen).

    The problem is: in vitro meat would be animal cells grown in culture, clumped into a tissue. But animal cells will not grow in culture unless you put some fetal animal serum–blood from an animal fetus, with the blood-cells removed– into the cultured cells’ growth medium. No one really knows why–no one really knows what is in the serum which the cells require. Most likely it’s the combination of many different growth-factors. Scientists have been trying for decades to find a useful substitute for fetal serum, but without success. You can wean some cell lines down to as little as one or two percent fetal serum (by volume), but most cell lines require between five percent and thirty percent (by volume) fetal serum or they simply will not grow.

    Fetal bovine serum (often called “fetal calf serum” in ordinary conversation) is most often used, obtained from the beef industry. Obviously, since most animals are not pregnant when slaughtered, and fetuses are small, you need to slaughter many cows in order to get enough fetal-calf serum to grow enough bovine cells in the lab to replace the meat you would get from one cow.

    Until someone manages to find an adequate substitute for fetal serum, the whole idea of in vitro meat is dead in the water.

    1. This isn’t actually true. Lots of current Good Laboratory Practice dictates the use of serum-free formulations specifically in order to get away from this sort of ‘voodoo’. However, the problem is a meta-iteration of the larger issue. You can certainly produce serum-free cell culture media. Mammalian even. The issue is, you can’t produce is by the ton at a price-point equivalent to a dairy-and-beef by-product.

      1. Have you actually tried growing cells in any of the serum-free culture-media?

        Glendower was able to summon spirits from the vasty deep. But, as Hotspur pointed out, the spirits would not come when he summoned them. Similarly, there’s lots of serum-free culture media you can buy, but, most your cell-lines will not grow in it.

        1. You mean I can’t grow cells in Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium or other minimal essential media? Better call every hormone and immunoglobulin manufacturer on the face of the Earth 20 yrs. ago and tell them.

          Have you actually tried growing cells in any of the serum-free culture-media?

          Yes. It’s been more than a decade, I certainly didn’t get it on the first try and I couldn’t have fed anyone with the amounts produced but serum-free media culture of mammalian cells sufficient to complete my studies, yes.

          What you meant to say is that it’s not as easy to grow cells in serum-free medium out of hand and/or that cultures growing in serum-based media will not generally transition to serum-free. Serum-based media is automatically normalized for pH, salts, vitamins, and other nutrients so it’s better for non-standard manufacture by non-standard manufacturers (researchers), but it’s nowhere near impossible for researchers or manufacturers to overcome these hurdles.

          Technically, the article is talking about meat-free alternatives. That is to say cell ‘cultures’ and plant products that don’t even use calf serum to begin with.

          1. RE: “You mean I can’t grow cells in Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium or other minimal essential media?”

            Without adding at least some fetal serum? Nope. At least, almost never. I was able to get a few cell-lines (hybridomas) down to one point five percent serum, but no less. And I’ve never met anyone who did any better than that.

          2. I’m not talking about “serum-based” media. I’m talking about minimum essential media like DMEM, which must be SUPPLEMENTED with fetal serum ADDED.

            1. …and pH, salt concentration, vitamins, and nutrients, are NOT why you need fetal serum. All those can, as you say, be provided artificially. But even so, almost all cell lines still require serum, and no one really knows why.

              1. You seem to be confusing “media which are not serum-BASED” with “serum-FREE”. DMEM plus five percent FBS is not serum-based, but also not serum-free.

            2. Without adding at least some fetal serum? Nope. At least, almost never. I was able to get a few cell-lines (hybridomas) down to one point five percent serum, but no less. And I’ve never met anyone who did any better than that.

              Here is just one of ThermoFisher’s recommended products and protocols. Here’s Tina Leisner from UNC Chapel Hill saying “When we grow our hybridoma line for antibody production, I first acclimate the cells in serum-free media such as EX-CELL Hybridoma medium. This usually takes a few weeks to fully ensure that they are happy in serum-free conditions.”

              Bovine Serum components are a lazy shortcut used by researchers who don’t really care all that much about larger context of their research. The question is “Will it work?” not “Will it work repeatedly and consistently?” otherwise, they’d understand why their cells won’t grow without serum and/or what effects serum is inducing in their cells as part of their experiments.

              1. Sure, companies post testimonials like that, from a lab lucky enough to have a line which grows in their medium, but the very large majority of lines don’t. It’s like those products for reducing the urge to smoke.

              2. RE: “The question is “Will it work?” not “Will it work repeatedly and consistently?” otherwise, they’d understand why their cells won’t grow without serum and/or what effects serum is inducing in their cells as part of their experiments.”

                Sure. People have only been trying to figure out why fetal serum works, and is necessary in the very large majority of cases, for half a century.

            3. You act like there’s only one way to grow lab meat and it has to start with the way in which you are familiar and that there’s no other way. When really the problem isn’t that narrow in scope and/or your approach is artificially narrow. You further insist that the narrow way you insist on growing meat intrinsically violates any notion of ‘lab meat’ on what I can only surmise are pseudo-religious grounds. If I took a drop of cow’s blood and purely ‘vegan’ reagents and produced a steak, the steak would unquestionably be ‘lab meat’. If I didn’t kill the animal to get the blood most vegetarians lose their primary opposition to the meat and meat production process. Yes, the founding of the cell lines that I used to culture my hybridomas used serum. My media didn’t. I don’t recall exact concentrations but 0.05% would be unreasonably high. But, again, 20 min. of internet searching reveals several labs with several protocols where mammalian cells grow nicely in 0.05%.

              1. “Several” is a wide term which can mean almost anything.

  3. Wouldn’t. Not because I think I’m better than you. I just couldn’t. And please don’t slip any into my borscht, thanks.

  4. While a number of groups have been researching lab cultured meats for years, is anyone anywhere near bringing such a product to market anywhere.

    1. The Richard Burton version of celluloid 1984 had “The Party” able to produce enough fake meat to spice up metallic stew. There is poetic licentiousness or possibly marketing foreshadowing in this interpretation. The book version mentioned only a spongy material that was “probably” a preparation of meat.

    2. Yeah I’m intrigued by what the response from vegetarians/animal rights people will be. Will they be happy that eating meat no longer requires killing animals or will they resent it for devaluing their asceticism? Obviously they get something out of it or they wouldn’t do it, and it would really clarify what it’s doing for them.

  5. Funny stuff. If the livestock producers are this worried, the lab producers must be getting close enough to spook them.

    I don’t imagine this cultured stuff will be much of a substitute for a few decades. I’ll probably try some out of curiosity, and it might even be good enough to eat more often. Maybe even better in some ways. But I doubt it will fool many people for some time.

    1. The issue is the usual brand dilution in combination with the Overton window. White Castle just recently announced a new impossible meat burger in the vein of one Bailey reviewed here. Personally, I’ve never considered White Castle’s burgers to be meat when they are/were made of beef. However, there are plenty of people who are completely ignorant or apathetic about the food making process to compete on what may be, technically, a luxury.

      Made the mistake of ordering a ‘Brisket’ from a barbecue place here in Chicagoland recently. I got a sandwich. The meat was beef, but it was long and stringy with very little bark, more like pulled pork. I’m near certain that they just bought a roast and put it in the oven next to their pulled pork and added ‘brisket’ to the menu. I’m not going to get the law involved over a sandwich but, IMO, it was pretty flagrant false advertising. Few of my co-workers are generally able to distinguish pork from beef by sight and, apparently, such a bait-and-switch is A-OK with them.

    2. What’s got them spooked is that, as soon as it’s even vaguely feasible to substitute this stuff for natural meet, the SJWs will go all out to outlaw real meat.

  6. This harks back to Harvey Washington Wiley and the Pure Food Law that became enforceable in 1907. The idea was to stop Sears from shipping morphine-laced baby syrup to China UNLESS the label said “morphine.” There was also apple jam with red dye and hayseeds added labeled “Strawberry Jelly.” But the Feds nationalized the Pharmacopoeia and used it to redefine whiskey and other drugs, escalating from there. Soon after some wag asked a bureaucrat “What is a sardine?” the Panic of 1907 was loose upon the land.

  7. The problem I foresee is that there are entire industries that use the waste from animal harvesting as their input material.

  8. “…courts are indeed the proper forum in which to settle this beef.”

    Everybody sees what you did there.
    Anyhow, if it’s to succeed, it’s gotta have some competitive advantage for those of us who currently eat meat; cheaper? better?
    Why would I try it outside of curiosity?

  9. What’s with Reason ‘s love of all things ersatz?
    Fake meat, fake mayo, fake smoking…

    1. Because the market should decide, not some meat lobbyists buying off senators and congress people.

      1. Whatever Tulpa…

        If the cosmos had their way fraud would be mandatory.

  10. I saw that episode of “Better Off Ted.”

  11. If they are using genetic modification to produce it then it isn’t beef because it’s been modified into something else. Truth in advertising is integral to free markets in order for participants to be informed, consenting adults.

    1. So GMO beef isn’t beef? Go tell that to the beef industry.

      1. There is no such thing as GMO beef yet. In reality there are only a handful of types of plants that have been made GMO. Mostly corn, wheat, soy, and tomatoes are the big ones. A few others have been toyed with, but aren’t widely available.

  12. How exactly are the courts the best place to resolve an issue that is so new that there are no laws about it? Talk about a recipe for chaos as every judge inserts their own personal feelings into their rulings.

    I, for one, would like it to be quite clear what I’m getting at the supermarket or in a restaurant, not have to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the legal situation in every judicial circuit.

  13. Another set of issues to be considered:

    If I hang a set of split hooves under the vat-beef-making vat, AND I add a “cud-chewing” appendage to the vat, to cycle some fraction of the vat-contents in and out and re-chew it now and then? Can I get my vat-beef “kosher” and “halal” certified?

    And what if I do the same to my PORK-vat?!?! Can the devout Jewish and Islamic folks now FINALLY enjoy a ham sandwhich without pissing God off?!?!

    1. There isn’t really a God, but don’t tell them that.

  14. Meat’s meat and a man’s got to eat. Let the market decide what people want to eat, whether it’s lab grown or grass fed free range hippy beef.

  15. ” The latter involves raising and killing a living animal, for example, while the former does not. On the other hand, every cell in a lab-grown meat product comes from an animal. A cell taken from a steak is likely indistinguishable from a comparable cell taken from a “steak” grown in a lab.”

    It also is not flesh from an active animal eating food, which makes a difference in flavor. Heck, people have a flavor preference for grass-fed beef over grain fed beef. It is a bit telling that lab grown food item is a chicken tender. A lot of flavor sins can be covered up with a layer of batter and deep frying.

    1. Not just flavor sins, texture. You can’t grow thick sections of tissue without a circulatory system. The lab meat is more of a “meat puree”; It might possibly end up tasting the same, depending on the growth media, but it’s going to be mystery meat as far as texture is concerned.

  16. If this ever gets to court, I hope the court agrees with the plaintiffs and then mandates that traditional beef be called something like ‘horrifically slaughtered after living a captive life beef’.

    I personally love my beef regardless of provenance, but anytime someone tries to perk their product through government I get a little upset.

  17. So:

    1. I am generally in favor of labeling laws that are SENSIBLE. Obviously it can go overboard sometimes. To me some of this is simply clarifying potentially fraudulent behavior up front. The whole hoo-haw over GMO labeling is a BS argument. Basically anybody who doesn’t specifically buy non GMO corn for instance, 100% has GMO in their shit because most corn is GMO. So just put that it may contain GMO. Done. It’s not a big deal like people pretend, it doesn’t cost them anything, other than perhaps customers who prefer to avoid GMO… But they can always start buying non GMO inputs if they think that’s a problem. I see labeling vat-meat as “lab grown beef” or something as being totally fine. Give them 10 acceptable phrases, they can choose which they like, and roll with that.

    2. This stuff will likely taste like garbage. Anybody who buys quality meat and shitty meat, like free range vs Auschwitz Farms (as my dad likes to call it!) chicken can TASTE the difference. If a chicken running around versus barely having space to stand makes a difference, zero muscle activity is going to make the texture, and probably the taste be horrible… Or at least different. I would imagine overly tender and flavorless. That’s how I think veal tastes personally. Give me adult cow any day!

    1. 3. As with mass cultivated crops, I suspect they will use the bare minimum inputs to produce the lab meat. This will likely result in it being lacking in trace elements, hence less nutritious. When testing scaled up organic farms they’ve often found minimal differences in mineral content from conventionally grown crops, but when compared against hardcore hippie grown organic stuff the differences in mineral content is quite clear. Everybody likes lower input and lower cost! But it comes AT A COST too. This stuff will not have the little things like normal animals do. Even free range chicken or beef versus factory farmed animals produce notably different results in content of some things. This will probably be that x10.

      So I’d say this stuff may be okay as filler in some processed foods… But I doubt eating a steak made out of this stuff will be palatable to most people. Slip 10% in a McDonalds burger to shave costs? Sure. But not throwing on the grill to eat all on its own.

  18. but its delicious food , beef meat or chicken.

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