What's in a name? For meat alternatives, quite a lot

A vendor slices a vegetarian burger at a food truck in downtown Washington, DC on Nov 1, 2017.
PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK - Proponents call it "slaughter-free" or "clean" meat. For many in the traditional meat industry, it is simply "fake".

One thing is certain: the battle over what to call the emerging alternatives to meat, whether made from plant or animal cells, is far from settled.

For animal cell-based products, "there is really no consensus", said Matt Ball, spokesman of the Good Food Institute, which promotes meat analogues.

When it was unveiled in 2013, the first Petri dish burger made headlines under the name "Frankenburger" and the words "lab meat", "artificial meat" or "cultured meat" were used.

Later, it was called "clean meat", only to be traded for the more recent term "cell-based meat".

In its search for the best word to whet the appetite of consumers, the Good Food Institute published a 37-page study in September on perceptions about the various names.

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be in charge of labeling these new products when they reach the market - as early as 2021, according to the most advanced startups.

Customers stop to get a free vegetarian burger at a food truck in downtown Washington, DC on Nov 1, 2017.Photo: AFP

"We are confident that the USDA will require accurate and descriptive labels for cell-based meat that include the type of meat it is," Ball said.

"This will be necessary simply from a public health perspective, to protect people who have allergies to different types of red meat or poultry."

THE LAW STEPS IN

Jean-Francois Hoquette, research scientist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, or INRA, said that in France, "we don't really ask ourselves how to define this (cell-based meat) product, because it hasn't triggered a major response".

The cell-based meat being produced today is more of a "pile of muscle fiber" that is still a far cry from sirloin steak, roasted chicken or pork chops, he said.

The consistency of conventional meat has to do with how it is aged after the animal is killed, Hoquette said.

And the taste is another matter altogether.

US cattle breeders are taking steps to avoid the same fate as milk producers, who have faced the rise of vegetarian non-dairy products based on items such as almonds or coconuts that are still labelled as "milk".

The US Cattlemen's Association insists that "meat" is a word that should only be used for flesh from an animal conventionally born, raised and slaughtered, though "harvested" is its preferred term.

"USCA prefers to use the phrase 'foods produced using cell-cultured technology' or 'alternative protein' when referring to plant-based products", said spokeswoman Lia Biondo.

"We welcome the competition in the meat aisle, so long as the playing rules are equal for both sides."

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association has yet to take a position on animal cell-based products since their exact composition is unknown.

"We have not taken a position on cell-cultured, in vitro, lab-grown meat, because they have yet to be vetted by the scientific community," said the group's senior director of government affairs Danielle Beck.

"We would not stand for non-factual terms that aren't based on science like clean meat, because it is inherently disparaging to conventionally produced meat products, implying it's dirty."

Jim Dinklage, a cattle rancher in Orchard, Nebraska, said using the word "meat" for these alternatives is simply "wrong" and has a negative impact on his bottom line.

"They are using the word meat because it confuses the consumers. That's hurting my business," he said.

"MEAT IMITATION"

Some lawmakers are weighing the issue.

Last year, Missouri became the first of the 50 US states to officially define meat as a food product coming from animals. Similar bills are being examined across the country.

In France, lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies adopted an amendment that was later rejected and taken up in the Senate targeting products with a "significant" plant-based component that use the words "steak", "bacon" or "sausage".

In Germany, where the terms "Fleischersatz" (meat substitute) and "Fleischimitat" (meat imitation) are widespread, the agriculture ministry published in late 2018 recommendations that packaging clearly indicate "vegetarian" or "vegan" when applicable, as well as what substitutes are used.

Authorities say the term "vegetarian steak" should be banned because it refers to a specific cut of meat, but "vegan goulash" is acceptable because it refers to a traditionally meat-based stew.

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