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Ranchers ask 'Where's the beef?' in lab-grown meat

With the growth of faux burger companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the US Cattlemen's Association asks the government to officially define "meat" and "beef."

Impossible Foods burger

Impossible Foods has a vegan burger that's so meat-like it's said to bleed.  

Impossible Foods

Take a cruise down your supermarket's meat aisle and next to the sirloin steaks, pork ribs and ground turkey, you may see packages of Beyond Meat's "Beyond Burger." 

These burgers are vegetarian, plant-based alternatives to real meat. But unlike your quinoa black bean veggie burger, they were created in a high-tech lab. That means they taste, look and smell a lot more like the real thing -- and might be why they nabbed a spot in the meat cases of supermarkets like Whole Foods and Safeway.

But not everyone's happy about this.

The US Cattlemen's Association, a trade group made up of 10,000 ranchers, says these products could confuse consumers into buying vegetarian when they're actually after conventional meat. The association filed a 15-page petition with the US Department of Agriculture last month asking the government to officially define "beef" and "meat."

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"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," Kenny Graner, USCA president, said in a statement. "US cattle producers take pride in developing the highest quality, and safest, beef in the world, and labels must clearly distinguish that difference."

Ranchers may be feeling the heat from the burgeoning lab-grown meat market. Beyond Meat is just one of many food-tech startups to get its fare into grocery stores and restaurants. Impossible Foods has a vegan burger that's so meatlike it's been said to bleed. And New Wave Foods makes little fried shrimp out of plant-based protein and algae. The market for faux meat and dairy products has grown from a handful of companies to roughly two dozen over the past couple of years, according to research firm CB Insights.

"You're going to see a backlash from incumbents in the industry," said Zoe Leavitt, tech industry analyst at CB Insights. "It doesn't come as a surprise when there's any sort of new innovation."

One problem might be that these faux burgers are starting to taste a lot like actual ground beef.

"Plant-based meats are improving in quality and earning a place alongside their animal meat counterparts," Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown said in an email, adding that he thinks there's an opportunity for the two industries to work together. "Are we interested in exploring what plant protein crops may work on certain grazing lands? Absolutely. Do I think that a plant-based takeover of the animal protein industry is imminent? No, I don't."

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We've seen reactions like that of the Cattlemen's Association before in the food industry. For example, Hershey petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to establish a definition for white chocolate in 2002. And alternative dairy products labeled "butter," "milk" or "yogurt" have met their fair share of legal battles.

"The dairy industry is really defensive with labels like 'milk,' 'cheese' and 'ice cream' on plant-based products," said Jessica Almy, policy director at the Good Food Institute, which advocates for a sustainable food supply. "And now with the growing popularity of plant-based meats … we're seeing the cattlemen make this petition."

The Cattlemen's Association said its petition isn't about competition, however, but rather ensuring consumers aren't led astray.

"We're concerned about these products being misleading and mislabeled," said Lia Biondo, the association's policy and outreach director. "Ideally we'd like this definition of beef and meat to come from the flesh of a bovine animal and not be created in a laboratory."

Almy, however, believes that narrowing a category of food, so that only one kind of product can be animal meat or beef, is unnecessary.

"There's no problem with either the safety or the labeling right now," she said. "When you're looking for a burger, it's nice to have all of your burger choices together in the meat case."

Impossible Foods declined to comment.

First published March 16 at 9:59 a.m. PT.
Correction, 12:39 p.m.: Only Beyond Meat's "Beyond Burger" is in supermarkets' meat cases. An earlier version of this story stated its "beast burger" and "beefy crumble" were also in the meat aisle.

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