Fake Meat Op-ed

Fake Meat Op-ed

South Dakota Stockgrowers President Gary Deering

For the last year or so you can’t help but seeing an article on fake meat within almost any farm publication that you may enjoy. The issue of fake anything, especially when it comes to feeding our families, is obviously sensitive, and quite frankly confusing. This week there were meetings at the USDA offices in Washington D.C. that attracted many from the livestock industries, as well as those that want their burger, tofu, or whatever, petri dish style. Most of the talk has been about labeling, and what do we call this stuff.

I believe we should make sure this product is labeled in a manner that will leave no doubt as to what this product is, and maybe more importantly, what it is not. I am not afraid to be somewhat arrogant, and have no doubt that the hard working families that make up the cattle business put the best protein product, that God or man can make, on the plates of consumers worldwide. The cattlemen of the United States raise this product better than anybody else in the world. We have almost half the number of cattle as Brazil, but raise over twenty percent more beef. We are running our ranches with tighter margins than ever in the history of our business.  With urban sprawl and more water use going toward urban development, we are producing needed protein with far less water, and other resources than at any other time in history. We have gotten so good, that even with less inputs than we have had a mere twenty years ago, we have enhanced the quality of our product.

According to Beef Its What’s For Dinner website, which must be approved by USDA for any statement made, as little as a three ounce serving of beef provides 25 grams or almost 50% of your daily protein value! The makeup of beef and other proteins, such as lamb, pork, and chicken all contain essential nutrients that help the human body digest and utilize protein, and other nutrients. For example, protein bars have been popular for sometime, and according to their labels, have adequate amounts of protein within them. However, one key ingredient many lack is riboflavin, which is important, because it is required to help your body utilize protein. Leave no doubt, meat naturally contains the proper levels of riboflavin for nutrient absorption. I am not a nutritionist, but the balance of good and bad cholesterols within beef amazes me. It has been proven, many times, by many dieticians, that beef will actually help you lower your cholesterol. I have no doubt that the product we raise was not an experiment, but rather brought to us through years of needing to feed a hungry world. Which, is why it became such a great tasting, wholesome product. Through years of ranchers looking for what their customers want, and mother nature knowing what they need, we have the best tasting, nutrient dense, and safest product available anywhere. I am sure a petri-dish can get something close to what we have, but I have no doubt these products can never duplicate what mother nature, and beef producers, have created. This truly is a case of science trying to create a product that nature already perfected, and with that quest they are going to have to overcome a number of unforeseen hurdles.

Two years ago at this time I recall reading an article where ranchers and industry organizations expressed that there was no real concern that fake meat would be of any significance to the food industry, and at this point that would be correct since meat alternative is only around one percent of the market.  Many felt that due to consumer demand, and price, lab grown products could not compete. I cautioned many within the industry, saying it would be a mistake to underestimate this industry. With investors such as, Bill Gates, backing this, I can guarantee if there is demand for a product, the industry will figure out how to get it on the shelves and out to the people who will pay for it, whatever that price is.  Since then cell based cultures have advanced to the point where now we must decide how these products will be regulated for sale. The pace of development requires this. While we don’t know everything about these products, it is critical we get this stage right.

It has also been pointed out that agricultural, and meat giants such as Cargill and Tyson have jumped on the fake meat bandwagon. Some make Benedict Arnold references to this, but I am really not sure why we are so surprised. Tyson currently has interest in all the proteins, and Cargill, the largest corporation in the United States, in terms of revenues, invests in many agricultural ventures. I am not saying it is right or wrong, but what I am saying is this proves a point I have been trying to make for some time. Loyalty to the American farmer/rancher can be questioned by the biggest within our industry. The promotion of our products, falls on us, the producers. Investors, care about their bottom line, and if they can make more money selling beef vs. chicken, they will. If they can make more money selling lab-grown stuff vs. meat, they will with little regard to producers. They will promote their products in order to make them more money. I don’t mean to bash the packers, and I realize the need we as producers have for them to get our products out to feed a hungry nation, and world. However, it is important to remember who cares about our bottom line, and that, is us.

Many questions must be asked about lab grown protein and for now I would simply say our naturally grown products have the upper hand. First of all, is it healthy? Many of us remember the Nutra-Sweet craze in the 1980’s. We were told how much better for us than sugar it was only to find out those claims were not true due to many health related problems it may cause. The margarine/butter debate, where we now know that the fat derived from animals is far superior for us than that made in a lab. Is it as safe? Who will oversee this product will be up for debate. I’m not ready to dive into this debate, and I am still listening to all sides of the argument. However beyond a doubt, I know that our beef and meat that is at my home or yours, or waiting sale in a grocery store, is safe! Just a few weeks ago 6.5 million pounds of beef was recalled and taken off the shelves immediately when the USDA found salmonella within it. The swiftness of our system to ensure that no Americans would get sick from these products is amazing. We also know that even if someone had purchased one of these packages containing a bacteria, through proper cooking techniques, the chances of suffering any ill consequences would be minimal! How well this lab grown product is monitored, how easy it will be to infect something within a petri-dish, and if it can make an almost zero percent chance of infecting, is yet to be determined. As far as health concerns, it is also unknown if this product can break through the barrier Mother-Nature has set and not become another aspartame, or margarine. Hopefully we won’t find out after a generation of people using it, as in the cases of these other products. Right now there are more questions than answers, and there is nothing we should assume about these products or their risks.

What we do know is that there are people that are asking for a meat alternative. They are not asking for it because of a tricky label, but are asking for it because they feel it is better, or is better for them, or any number of various considerations that motivate consumers. History has proven that there is no substitute that compares in safety and health to containing animal protein within our diets. The most important thing is that the public is informed and our product stays king.  Regardless of what this stuff is called, and whether it is derived from soy, cells, chemicals, or a combination of all, we must make sure consumers know what they are buying. Most importantly, we must make sure consumers want to buy our product and know that the hard working farmers and ranchers, with a little help from mother nature, provide a product that cannot be duplicated.