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On Meat without Animals

Panelists on stage
Jan 18 2017
Sara Button

What if the meat you buy at the grocery store--the ground beef for Independence Day burgers, the to-be-fried chicken wings for the Superbowl, maybe even your steak on date night--could be healthier than it is now? That it would have no risk of causing bacterial infection like salmonella, that it could have the perfect protein/fat ratio, that it may provide better nutrients for healthier living? What if that meat also used way fewer environmental resources to produce and transport? What if the meat--real, honest-to-goodness meat--didn’t even harm the animals it came from?

Now what if the meat were cultured in a lab? Would you still eat it?

By a show of hands, much of the audience at the Cemex Auditorium on the night of January 12, would. Naomi Sparkman, award-winning journalist and founder of Civil Eats, moderated the panel of industry experts, animal rights activists, and thinkers convened for On Meat without Animals: Considering Cellular Agriculture (part of the Technology & Human Values series). The panel brought a unique perspective to the cultured meat conversation: Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute and co-founder of New Crop Capital; Paul Shapiro, the vice president of policy for The Humane Society of the United States; Uma Valeti, CEO and Co-Founder of Memphis Meats, one of the companies leading the cultured meat movement; and Cor Van Der Weele, professor of humanistic philosophy at Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Early on in the panel, a point of dissention was that of nomenclature. One of the biggest hurdles industry pioneers like Dr. Valeti will face is branding. What are we supposed to call this stuff, anyway, especially if we want people to buy it? Originally, it was called “in vitro meat,” or sometimes “synthetic meat”; everyone on the panel rejoiced that those terms were no longer de rigueur. But there wasn’t complete consensus, either. Mr. Friedrich and the folks at GFI introduced the term “clean meat” last fall, and he explained to the audience that he felt it better described the product. It’s a nod to clean energy, which emphasizes the meat’s sustainability, and highlights the reduction of bacterial load compared to meat that goes through a typical slaughter process. Additionally, he pointed out that “cultured” already has its place in the food world, referring to fermentation and preservation processes.

Dr. Van Der Weele preferred “cultured meat,” because “clean meat” felt too sterile. Besides, “we’re still finding out what to think of it, what to make of it, how it relates to normal meat,” she said. Mr. Shapiro was partial to “clean meat” because it was easier to define in terms of the product’s benefits.

Dr. Valeti preferred no prefix at all. Mr. Shapiro reminded the crowd that a lot of genetically modified or lab-designed foods aren’t marketed with a prefix. “Nobody says ‘lab-created Corn Flakes,’” he quipped. Ultimately, though, his stance was that the language “should not just be a description of the process but should be done with the mindset to increase the acceptance of the first impression.” They’d welcome better phrasing if it came along.

Another important issue that came up was regulation and governmental approval. They surmised that the Food & Drug Administration would regulate cultured meat rather than the US Department of Agriculture (after all, no farms or ranches will be directly involved). And Mr. Friedrich is optimistic that, on the whole, governments will care about innovation in cellular agriculture, especially if they plan to adhere to environmental goals like those in the Paris Climate Agreement. Corporations may care, too--in December, poultry giant Tyson decided to invest in alternative proteins.

Price was another question. While Dr. Valeti clarified that Memphis Meat’s latest meatball cost $1,000, costs should drop once production is at scale. Mr. Shapiro noted that the current cost of meat is artificially low. “It’s not cheap because we’re not paying the price. We are paying the price,” he said. “Just not at the cash register.”  We pay it in the form of “tax dollars, subsidies, public health crises, outbreaks, recalls, environmental cleanup, and so on. Certainly animals are paying the price in increased suffering.”

Perhaps the audience’s biggest question was whether the panel was encouraging meat-eating or not? It boiled down to this: a vegetarian diet that is sustainable for people and the environment has never picked up steam. The panelists acknowledged that vegetarians and vegans aren’t necessarily the target audience for cultured meat anyway.  “We don’t really care what vegetarians eat,” Mr. Friedrich joked. “We’ve already got them.”

This issue of whether scientists and activists should tout cellular agriculture above a vegetarian diet had also risen earlier in the day, when students got the chance to engage with the panelists during a small, interactive workshop at Roble Hall. Over a vegan lunch, eight Stanford undergraduates and graduates from programs as diverse as computer science and law split into two teams to present the pros and cons of cultured meat in creative ways. After twenty minutes of brainstorming, each group presented their arguments, the “Why” side illuminating pertinent topics like health and taste in a skit set in a future Walmart that could potentially carry such meat products, while the “Why Not” side argued their case using a handmade picture book. It was the first time that arguments against cultured meat have been presented in a formal setting; and though cultured meat seems ideal, those anti-arguments showed there’s still work to be done: how long it might take to arrive at the point of scaled production, obstacles of time, communication, and dietary health remain.

In both the morning and evening sessions, participants asked a lot of questions. Many, if not most, don’t have answers, and won’t for some time. Will people get over the “ick factor” of lab-to-table food? Will cultured meat put traditional meat out of business, like the rise of kerosene decimated the whaling industry in the 19th century, as Paul Shapiro suggested? Maybe. But I think if we were to ask a Magic 8-Ball if we can have our meat and eat it, too, there would be only one response based on what we heard last week: Outlook good.

Sara Button

SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.