Is ‘fake meat’ a threat to Montana ranchers?

Montana’s ranchers are renowned producers of superior-grade beef. However, a new product, an imitation meat grown in labs, is coming up and trying to classify itself as meat. (Teresa Dragu/The Havre Herald)

(The Havre Herald) The Montana beef industry faces many threats. But the biggest may not be foreign trade or tariffs, but rather test tubes and petri dishes, says Jess Peterson, executive vice president of the United States Cattlemen’s Association.

That was the thrust of Peterson’s argument in a recent presentation at the Northern Ag Research Center.

“Fake meat” is being developed in laboratories that hope to create a substance that looks and tastes like traditional meat. Its producers contend that it will be tasty, inexpensive and better for the environment than traditional beef.

Peterson, one by one, sought to disprove those arguments when he spoke to a producers’ conference sponsored by the Montana Farmers Union and the Montana State University-Northern Stockgrowers.

Israeli scientists are among the leaders in developing imitation lab meat, he said, though many in other industrialized countries are also involved.

The beef industry is great in competition and it is ready to do battle with the fake meat industry. But, he said, the industry has to demand that it be a fair fight.

The “fake meat” industry insists on calling its product meat, he said. It’s not. Traditionally, meat is something that comes from animals. Fake meat is made by using animal cells and growing them in laboratories, he said.

“You can call it petri-dish protein, but not meat.

“I don’t know where you’d rather get your food, here?” he asked, pointing to a picture of a petri dish shown on a slide show he was presenting, “or here,” he said, pointing out the window to the beautiful northern Montana plains.

The product should be allowed in supermarkets if it is proven safe, he said, but not at meat counters.

Peterson got especially indignant when talking about many in the “fake meat” industry who insist on calling their product “clean meat.”

Memphis Foods, one of the producers, has agreed to refrain from using the clean meat phrase, but most others are still using it, insisting that the world is running out of agricultural space and their product is better for the consumer’s health and will help in the battle against climate change. Both claims are false, Peterson said.

Natural beef is far more friendly to the environment than chemical-based food, he said, adding that numerous studies uphold his conclusion.

It will be about two years before the fake meat products are ready to be marketed, he estimated. At first, they will try products similar to hamburger, then develop other forms of meat until they come up with a “steak.”

The product will not be the plant-based food like non-meat hamburgers made for vegetarians, but food prepared in the lab.

At first, fake meat producers will use the environmental argument, since the product will certainly be more expensive and not as good to eat, Peterson says.

Even a video prepared by the industry, which Peterson presented to the conference, showed a Wall Street Journal journalist watching the manufacturing process and then eating the final product.

The beef, about the size of a credit card, tasted “pretty good” but was “not the beat steak I ever had,” the journalist said.

And, at first, it will be considerably more expensive than traditional beef, Peterson predicted. They will concentrate their efforts on the Whole Food markets and other trendy, upscale customers who are concerned with climate change. But lab tests will continue, he said, with the intention that taste will improve and costs will be brought down.

The cattle industry ought not wait to begin its fight against the fake meat industry. It ought to fight by campaigning with regulatory agencies and Congress and conduct a public relations campaign using Facebook and Twitter.

The dairy industry waited too long to begin to counter the sale of several milk look-alike products.

While his special interest has been the beef industry, the pork and chicken industries face similar competition in the future, he said. In the video, industry representatives said they could start selling lab-grown chicken nuggets now, but regulatory approval has not been obtained.

The cattle industry has just won a yearlong battle to get the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture to jointly oversee production of the “fake meat.” That was  “a big victory for the cattle industry” that will make it more difficult for the cell-based meat industry to win regulatory approval, Peterson said.

The cattlemen’s association has concentrated most of its efforts in Washington lobbying with Congress and federal agencies.

Butt Missouri is studying proposals to put limits on fake meat and North Dakota and Nebraska are looking at similar proposals, he said, and the association would be happy to share its expertise.

He knew of no such efforts in Montana.

Among the other questions that will have to be answered, he said, is that if this product is to be called beef, how will it be determined what grade it is?

The cattle industry has spent decades figuring out how to ensure their meat is safe for consumers, he said. He hopes the same rigorous inspections are required for the new product.

“People want to know if a food is safe for their family,” he said.