Christian Corner Meats

Haley Sexton stocks the ground beef case at Christian Corner Meats in Anniston. A bill in the Legislature would prohibit people from selling laboratory-grown meat as “meat.” (Photo by Trent Penny)

Meat grown in a laboratory is several years away from hitting store shelves, but the Alabama Legislature is already attempting to regulate it.

A bill in the Alabama House of Representatives wouldn’t ban the sale of meat grown in a laboratory, but it would keep it from being sold under the name “meat.” A handful of other states have introduced similar legislation.

“It may have started out as an animal cell, but it’s not what people are accustomed to,” said Rep. Danny Crawford, R-Athens, sponsor of the bill.

Yes, growing meat in a petri dish is a thing.

In 2013, Mark Post, professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, introduced the world’s first “cultured meat” product. Since then a few companies have begun growing meat in their own labs.

It’s not clear when cultured meat might arrive in grocery stores, but there are already companies trying to perfect the product for the market. Among them is Finless Foods in California, which is developing cultured fish. In an email to The Star, a representative of Finless Foods said the company could not comment because it is “heads down saving the ocean and the marine life in it.”

This experimental process painlessly removes cells from an animal for scientists to multiply in a lab. The result is “biologically exactly the same as the meat tissue that comes from a cow,” according to culturedbeef.org, a website owned by Maastricht University.

Despite this, many argue this lab-grown product is not the same as traditional meat.

Crawford and his co-sponsors think there is a distinct difference between the two products, which should be noted on the label. Crawford said the problem is not creating this product through cell cultivation, but calling it “meat.”

“It’s an alternative protein,” said Erin Beasley, executive vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association. “Whatever they come up with to call it is fine, as long as it’s not ‘meat.’”

She added that the bill would prohibit makers of these products from putting “meat” on the label at all, even in phrases such as “meat substitute” or “cultured meat.” The goal is to “protect the integrity of meat labels,” Beasley said.

“We not only want to protect the livestock producers but also the consumers,” Beasley said.

Chad Green of Roanoke Stockyards said it should not be labeled as “meat” because it is not what people are used to, but he is not overly concerned about it.

“I’ve got plenty of other things to worry about,” Green said. “The meat industry has several issues.”

Debbie Young, owner of Christian Corner Meats, a local butcher shop, described labeling issues that already exist in the meat industry.

Young said beef labels no longer have to tell you where it is from, so you may get a lower-quality product without knowing it.

To her, there is a larger issue of “do people still want a quality product, or will they buy anything because of the price?”

Others argue that labeling laws for cultured meat are unnecessary. “In order to decide whether these bills are necessary, they need to make sure there is in fact consumer confusion,” said Jarrett Dieterle, director of commercial freedoms at R Street Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C., which, according to its website, engages “in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government.”

Dieterle said the lack of evidence of confusion with existing substitutes, such as plant-based alternatives, supports the idea there is another factor influencing these bills.

Ernest Baskin, assistant professor of marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, has looked into these driving forces.

“They’re trying to not give consumers an easy way to think about these as alternatives,” Baskin said.

Baskin said when people see the terms “meat” and  “alternative meat,” they associate it as a possible substitute for traditional meat. According to him, these bills aim to keep that from happening.

Baskin also said it will come down to how the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture define these products. There is no federal legislation yet, and the state bills aim to ensure there are labeling laws in place when these products do hit the shelves in the next few years.

The bill is “to make sure, in Alabama, we don’t sell animal cells grown in a lab as meat,” Crawford said.

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