AuthorSalisbury, Tate J.


Over the course of the coming decade, the perception of what it means to be "meat" is going to radically change. Plant-based meat products have begun to mimic the taste and texture of meat so accurately that they are quickly becoming an acceptable alternative to traditional meat. (1) In the near future, in vitro meat (or so-called "lab-grown" meat) will be an indistinguishable alternative to meat harvested from animals. (2) These products promise to usher in a future of meat consumption unshackled from the animal suffering and environmental harm that are generally accepted today as a necessary evil in agriculture. (3) With these new products will come new regulatory challenges, not least of which is the issue of how these new meat products should be labeled.

This Note looks to past and present labeling regulations, as well as the theory behind labeling regulation, to argue for how the future labeling of meat substitutes should proceed. Section I of this Note introduces plant-based and in vitro meat and explores the unique aspects and implications of each. Section II examines current state and federal regulations that will affect the labeling of meat substitutes. Section III delves into the essential considerations that must be weighed when contemplating the mandatory labeling of consumer food products. Section IV looks at labeling regulations of plant-based milk and genetically engineered food products, and uses these examples as indicators for how regulation of meat substitutes should or could progress. Section V proposes specific regulatory approaches for plant-based and in vitro meat considering likely and potential future developments, and finally argues that similar standards should be applied to traditional meat.


    1. Plant-Based Meat

      It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, it even bleeds like meat, but take a closer look at the Impossible Burger's ingredients and you will find an assortment of potato protein, wheat protein, as well as coconut and soy derivatives. (4) The Impossible Burger is one of several recently debuted products that promise to turn our conception of meat on its head. (5) However, these newcomers enter an already populated field of plant-based meats. While nobody is likely to mistake their products for actual meat, brands like Tofurky have spent several decades producing plant-based products intended to replace meat. (6) Already, plant-based meats boast $670 million in yearly U.S. sales. (7)

      The most obvious benefit of plant-based meat is that it allows vegetarians and vegans to consume types of foods which are ordinarily reserved for the omnivorous masses. With an increasing number of Americans choosing to abstain from meat, (8) it is no wonder that plant-based meats are seeing a steady growth in sales. (9) This increased popularity of plant-based foods is likely also the result of people trying to cut down on meat consumption due to the perceived immorality of factory farming. (10) Globally, the popularity of meat-free diets largely comes from religious traditions that hold a vegetarian diet to be a moral good. (11) Although the perceived immorality of traditional meat is a major reason that people consume meat alternatives, it is far from the only reason to do so.

      The environmental impact of producing plant-based meat is much smaller than producing traditional meat, meaning more plant-based meat substitution would be good for the environment. (12) Livestock activities produce an estimated 18 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and they produce nearly 80 percent of all emissions related to agriculture. (13) Beyond greenhouse gases, raising livestock has a tremendous negative impact on water supplies (14) and bio-diversity. (15) A final often-overlooked problem with using animals for food is that feeding and housing animals takes up a lot of space. Livestock production currently uses 30 percent of the world's land area--much of which could be given back to native plant and animal species and reforested if consumption of traditional meat were to substantially decrease. (16)

      With meat consumption on the rise around the world, problems caused by traditional meat production will only get worse without substantial changes. (17) Since the problems of traditional meat production result from the process of raising billions of animals, a remedy might be found in divorcing meat from animals altogether. One way to accomplish this is through a large-scale transition to plant-based meat consumption, but another is production of real meat outside the bodies of animals.

    2. "Lab-Grown " Meat

      While plant-based "meat" products are currently disrupting the meat industry, the meat substitute with the biggest long-term potential is real meat grown in a laboratory rather than in an animal. (18) Since the product is still in its infancy, many terms are currently used to refer to meat grown outside of an animal, including: "synthetic meat," "lab-meat," and "cultured meat." (19) In this Note, I will use the term "in vitro meat," which has a comparatively neutral connotation and has been used in much of the scientific and legal literature on the topic. (20) While in vitro meat has great potential, it is not yet viable as a consumer product. (21) However, with plant-based meats already on the market, now is the time for regulators to begin rethinking how they deal with meat and meat substitutes.

      In order for in vitro meat to become a viable consumer product, scientists will need to achieve greater efficiencies in the multi-step production process, the generalities of which are unlikely to change. (22) The process starts with a few cells extracted from a living animal and ends with a full cut of meat. First, tissue is extracted from a live animal and the stem cells within are isolated. (23) Next, these cells are grown in a three-dimensional scaffold to assume the same structure as traditional meat. (24) A variety of cell types must be grown together in this scaffold, including fat, skeletal muscle, and other types of structural cells. (25) Finally, the meat is conditioned--a process required to achieve the texture of traditional meat. (26) Conditioning involves exercising the muscle cells through physical or electronic stimulation. (27)

      Challenges and inefficiencies exist at every stage of the production process. (28) Major challenges include cell sourcing, producing muscle strands longer than those found in ground meat, and approximating the taste and color of meat without artificial additives. (29) Only when these and other challenges are overcome can in vitro meat be made indistinguishable from traditional meat and sold at a competitive price. While the first publicly consumed in vitro meat product was a hamburger produced for $335,000 in 2013, (30) experts predict that certain in vitro meat products will be commercially viable within only a few years. (31)

      Once viable, in vitro meat promises many of the same benefits as plant-based meats. While in vitro meat requires the use of actual animal tissue, its production process avoids the necessity of slaughter and would eliminate the need for animal suffering outside of the initial cell extraction process. (32) It also offers many of the same environmental benefits of eliminating the massive land use and carbon dioxide output from raising animals for meat production. (33) Moreover, unlike plant-based meat, in vitro meat could become indistinguishable from cuts of traditional meat. (34) The product could even go beyond indistinguishability and be engineered to be more nutritious and flavorful than traditional meat. (35) However, because the future of in vitro meat is speculative, so are the benefits. (36)

      The speculative future of in vitro meat cuts both ways. Because in vitro meat is an innovative product, it could be harmful in its disruption of the current meat economy. (37) For instance, in vitro meat could exacerbate poverty in developing countries with primarily agricultural economies by shifting the production of meat back into industrialized economies. (38) Some also fear that the complexity and novelty of in vitro meat might make the product unforeseeably dangerous. (39)

      In vitro meat's future is speculative partially because its adoption largely depends on public opinion. Many people have a negative perception of in vitro meat, considering it to be inauthentic or unnatural. (40) These perceptions threaten the product's success, (41) but they are likely malleable. (42)

      Negative perceptions of in vitro meat also derive from ethical concerns regarding possible uses and effects of the technology. One ethical issue with in vitro meat is the potential for production of "unethical" meats. A person could, for instance, produce in vitro meat from human cells. (43) The potential for in vitro meat to violate cultural taboos around cannibalism is real, but this application of the technology is unlikely to materialize. Most new technologies can be used to violate deep-seated taboos and fundamental social norms, but rarely are such violations realized. One need only look to cloning technology to see that such fears are generally misplaced--livestock are now regularly cloned, but despite widespread panic a decade ago about the ethical implications of cloning technology, no human has ever been cloned. (44) A final ethical concern is the status of current farm animals should they be entirely replaced by in vitro meat production. (45) Domesticated pigs, cows, and chickens could find that they have no place in a world without a traditional meat industry. While interesting to consider, such a world is far too distant and speculative for the question to have any logical bearing on current practices and regulation. (46) Despite ethical qualms, and despite mixed public opinion, in vitro meat is coming and regulators have already begun to consider its impact.


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