Editorial: It’s animal tissue grown in a vat. But is it meat?

Cultured beef alongside regular meat in a lab.
Cultured beef alongside regular meat in a lab.
(Maastrict University/ AFP/Getty Images)

What do you call a hamburger made from meat that was grown in a giant vat, rather than from the ground-up flesh of dead cattle? Is it “meat,” “cultured meat” or something else entirely?

That sounds like the set up to a joke. But it’s an honest-to-goodness debate brewing among the advocates and detractors of a new class of meat products being developed by a number of biotech companies. This meat is grown from cultured animal stem cells and fed with nutrients to create alternatives to factory-farmed chicken, beef and pork, and it could be on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus in as a few as two years if regulators permit. And though it sounds silly to argue over what to call a product that has yet to be approved for sale, how we collectively refer to it is intertwined with a parallel debate over whether federal regulators should treat it as just another processed food product or as a threat from which conventional meat producers need to be protected.

Advocates call it “clean meat,” a name that evokes not just hygiene but also a lighter environmental footprint. And that’s the pitch: If consumers gravitate to a manufactured meat that tastes, looks and has the same nutritional composition as ordinary beef, chicken or ham, it could significantly reduce the need for factory-farmed animals and the greenhouse gas emissions that come from 1.5 billion ruminating cows. Also, meat grown in a vat is less liked to be exposed to harmful bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella because those bacteria develop in the intestinal tracts of live animals and typically taint meats as animals are slaughtered. Cultured meat is perishable and vulnerable to contamination during the packaging and handling process, so regulators must ensure that it is safe for consumers. But that’s true of any processed food.


Pig farmers, cattle ranchers and other farm animal producers don’t care what the stuff is called, so long as it isn’t referred to as ‘meat.’

Pig farmers, cattle ranchers and other farm animal producers don’t care what the stuff is called, so long as it isn’t referred to as “meat.” They contend that this descriptor should apply only to the flesh or tissue harvested from the bodies of once-live animals, and they’re asking lawmakers and regulators to stop cell-cultured products from being peddled by that name. The legislators of one state, Missouri, have agreed, passing a law in June to do just that.

Yet in a perverse twist, conventional meat producers also want the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which has jurisdiction over meat products derived from animal carcasses) to regulate this new meat product, rather than the more appropriate U.S. Food and Drug Administration (which regulates processed and genetically engineered food). Farm groups are determined to have the agency that inspects, certifies and promotes their meat products to be the one that decides how their new rival will be labeled. As the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. put it in a letter to the USDA earlier this year, “it is imperative USDA assert jurisdiction over cultured or lab-grown meat products to prevent misleading labels like ‘clean meat.’”

It is understandable that conventional meat producers are worried about competition from hamburgers, chicken nuggets and sausages that aren’t served with a side of guilt. (Not to mention fish sticks — there are cultured fish products in development too.) Studies have found that while many people are uncomfortable with the confinement and slaughter of animals for food, most of them still eat meat. The companies developing what they call “clean meat” are betting consumers will be glad to have a meaty option that doesn’t involve the systematic killing of animals.

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As it turns out, consumers appear skeptical at this point. The Consumers Union recently asked participants in a national study if they thought that meat produced from something other than a live animal should be labeled something other than “meat.” Almost all of them said yes, and a majority preferred that it be labeled “lab-grown meat” or “artificial or synthetic meat” despite the fact that it is neither grown in a lab nor a meat facsimile.

Some kind of accurate disclosure on these products makes sense, at least initially. And you’d think that the makers of no-kill meat would embrace a designation informing consumers that no animals were harmed in the making of their brand of hot dogs or bacon. But labels should not be used to try to suppress what could be an environmentally friendly and humane source of food for a growing population or to give an unfair advantage to one industry.

Ultimately, it should be up to consumers to decide if they are interested in meat produced in industrial warehouses rather than carved from an animal carcass, no matter what it is called.

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