The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association Has a Beef with Lab-Grown Meat

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) wants the government to hobble the coming competition from "clean meat" startups—companies that specialize in creating lab-grown meat products that don't involve animal slaughter. The association has petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), claiming that the words "beef" and "meat" should not be used to describe lab-grown and alternative meat products, since they are not derived from the flesh of animals.

The USCA insists that such labels confuse or mislead the customer. In a press release—headlined "Meat is Meat, Not a Science Project"—USCA President Kenny Graner said:

Consumers depend upon the USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service to ensure the products they purchase at the grocery store match their label descriptions. We look forward to working with the agency to rectify the misleading labeling of "beef" products that are made with plant or insect protein or grown in a petri dish. U.S. cattle producers take pride in developing the highest quality, and safest beef in the world, and labels must clearly distinguish that difference.

While lab-grown meats are not yet commercially available, clean meat startups have garnered considerable investment in recent years. Lab-grown meat may hit the market as early as 2020, the petition suggests.

Tyson, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson have all invested in Memphis Meats, a company that specializes in the creation of cultured meats. Other startups—Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Just Meat—have also attracted attention. Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, thinks lab-grown meat is an innovation on par with the automobile or the iPhone.

Why is the USCA, a major player in the traditional beef industry, interested in this semantic distinction? Food policy expert Baylen Linnekin offers some clarity.

"I think the USCA is worried about competition and is trying to make sure lab-grown foods are distinguished from those that come from a living animal," Linnekin tells Reason. "I don't think use of the terms 'meat' or 'beef' is anything the government generally or the USDA in particular should regulate. If the USCA has a problem with its competitors trying to use those words, they should sue. The Supreme Court has already held, in POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola, that beef producers or, perhaps, an industry group such as the USCA can sue competitors over misleading statements. Hence, this is properly a legal rather than a regulatory matter."

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

"When government defines terms like 'meat' or 'beef' or 'natural' or 'organic,' it can stifle innovation and, consequently, harm consumers and innovators," said Linnekin. "Here, there's no reason for lawmakers or regulators to get involved. The courts are perfectly capable of protecting consumers from being misled."

But perhaps that's not the sort of protection the beef producers really want.