Or rather, M-words, plural: Milk and meat.
At a recent Senate hearing, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb was pressed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) as to why the FDA isn’t cracking down on soymilk-makers for using 'milk' in their product name.
The commissioner has now announced that his agency will take a closer look at the issue. Missouri just passed a law banning makers of plant-based burgers and sausages from calling their products plant-based 'meat.' The USCattlemen’s Association filed a federal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture urging the agency to prohibit what’s called 'clean meat' (real meat grown from animal cells rather than animal slaughter) from being called 'meat' when it hits the market in the coming years.
To hear the meat and dairy industry tell it, the growth of the alternative protein sector is causing a whole bunch of M-word mayhem. Faced with the popularity of new plant-based products, they seem to pine for a past era and strive to make meat great again.
We've been here before
An incumbent industry being threatened by new technology is hardly new. In the 19th century, the massive ice-shipping industry railed against the new innovation of refrigeration.
They even derided human-made ice as 'artificial ice' and warned consumers that it was inferior to the 'natural ice' they harvested from Northern lakes and shipped around the world. Fast-forward to today, and if you’re reading this op-ed, the chance of you having an artificial ice-maker in your home—you may call it a 'freezer'—is virtually 100%. In fact, you likely don’t consider human-made ice unnatural at all, and you certainly stipulate that it is indeed 'ice.'
Just in the same way that humanity for millennia could only obtain ice if it was made by nature, for most of human history eating meat meant an animal had to be slaughtered. And just as today we’re quite happy to use ice made via technology, a revolution in plant-based protein and cellular agriculture is enabling us to start making our own meat and milk, too.
Cleaner, greener, kinder
In the case of cellular ag, the products that will be on the market within years are identical to conventionally-produced meat and milk today, except they pose fewer food safety concerns and require vastly fewer resources to produce.
Taking a microscopic cell from a chicken and growing actual chicken meat is not only feasible, but many people, myself included, have already dined on such meats. Since common bugs like E. Coli and Salmonella are intestinal pathogens, you need worry much less with this 'clean meat,' since its producers aren’t growing intestines at all—just the muscle and fat consumers want.
When it comes to plant-based meats already widely available, companies like Beyond Meat are making burgers that look and taste so much like meat from a cow—despite being made from plant proteins—that they’re placed right next to conventional burgers in supermarkets, and in some cases are even outselling them.
Don't have a cow?
In the dairy aisle, plant-based milks have now grown to 14% of the fluid milk market, causing major ag lender Rabobank to advise dairy companies to stay in business by investing in their plant-based competitors. One storied New York dairy has now gone so far as to ditch cows altogether and convert to entirely plant-based milks. They may soon get some competition from a new type of cow’s milk, though: Real bovine milk, fermented from microorganisms without the use of a single cow, something start-up Perfect Day is already brewing.
Are the millions of consumers gobbling up Beyond Burgers and Silk almond milk being duped into thinking these products are meat and milk from farmed animals? That seems to be the argument of the lawmakers who are so concerned about these companies’ use of the M-words.
Rather than trying to censor plant-based and cellular ag start-ups from using the M-words, conventional animal producers would be wiser to invest in them themselves. That’s exactly what some forward-thinking meat producers like Tyson and Cargill have already done. They see what the ice-shipping barons simply never did.
A Kodak moment?
To use a more recent example, just as Kodak could’ve pursued digital photography in the way Canon did, animal farming companies that invest in alternative proteins will be the winners of tomorrow’s plates and stomachs. At least Kodak never tried to ban digital pictures from being called “photographs,” but the company’s bankruptcy speaks volumes to incumbents in other industries today. Successful companies stay on top by embracing innovation, not by tying its hands with ill-conceived lobbying to stifle it.
The M-words are likely here to stay. Agriculture is a dynamic field and will continue to evolve and improve. Whether from plant proteins today or animal cells tomorrow, for those consumers who want to eat these foods, why not let them have their meat and eat it too?
Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.