Big Beef’s Beef with Clean Beef

By Paul Shapiro

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The world’s first clean meatball, grown by Memphis Meats. More info at

It was probably inevitable. With all the attention — and perhaps more importantly, investment — the clean meat industry’s attracting, America’s cattlemen were unlikely to sit on their hands and let more efficient methods of meat production do to them what Netflix did to Blockbuster not too long ago.

As Quartz’s Chase Purdy reports, even with meat giants like Cargill and Tyson investing in Memphis Meats, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) filed a petition this week with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (UDSA) demanding that beef grown from animal cells as opposed to animal slaughter not be allowed to be called “beef.” The NCBA asked USDA in its petition only to allow the labeling of beef from meat that came from “traditionally” sourced methods. One wonders just what the group thinks is “traditional” about current meat production. (Perhaps it’s the genetic selection programs, hormones, and antibiotics that make it so.)

Such desperation brings to mind the losing 19th century war waged by the natural ice industry on what it called “artificial ice” (which we today simply call ice that’s made in our freezers). Naturally occurring ice was once big business: large cuts of it were harvested from northern lakes and shipped around the world. Enter the invention of industrial refrigeration, and all of a sudden there was a much more efficient way to stock icehouses with blocks for consumers. By World War I, the natural ice industry was essentially over, but not without a fight. Largely starting in the 1880s, as historian Jonathan Rees explains in his book Refrigeration Nation, the natural ice producers defended their enterprise by railing against “artificial ice,” warning consumers that it was unnatural and unsafe.

The end result, though, was just ice. Whereas we once harvested ice that’d been formed by nature, now we use science to make our own ice. But the final product is the same: ice, which is how it ought to be labeled.

Today, of course, we know it’s actually safer to use technology both to filter our water and then cool it down into ice. Similarly, using technology to produce real, actual beef from animal cells is safer than raising and slaughtering animals, as you need worry much less about intestinal pathogens like E. Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and more. (Think about it: when growing meat, you’re growing muscle and fat cells, but you don’t need to grow intestines.) And just like ice, the end result of the clean meat process is the same: beef, which is exactly what it ought to be called.

Just how serious do the cattlemen take clean meats (and plant-based meats like Beyond Meat too, for that matter)? Well, just take a look at NCBA’s top 2018 policy priorities and you’ll see “protect our industry and consumers from fake meat” near the top of its list. Ironically, the trade association lists “prevent market-disrupting policies” as an even higher priority.

I guess products that could disrupt their market are the exception to the cattlemen lobby’s free market principles.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the Washington Post bestseller, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

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