Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World

Paul Shapiro is passionate about Clean Meat. He is passionate about its potential for solving major issues with respect to animal welfare, global warming, farm-worker safety and the health of meat eaters. Unfortunately, he must argue his case using the language I usually use to defend processed food. It would appear that the deck is stacked against him.

“Judged by the amount of suffering it causes, industrial farming of animals is arguably one of the worst crimes in history.” The main argument for clean meat in the book is to eliminate the need to farm animals to kill them for meat as is stated in the Foreword by Yuval Noah Harari. This theme permeates the book, but Shapiro goes beyond the Foreword to state that “it would be a mistake to conclude that local, organic animal production is free from animal welfare concerns.” Once meat is produced without animals, many vegetarians and vegans might reconsider their dietary habits, but abstaining from meat is not limited to concern for animals. Vegetarianism has a long history that is well documented by Tristram Stuart in The Bloodless Revolution.

Hello pork zucchini and potatoes

“Of course with meat cultured outside the animal, there’s no fecal matter to worry about; it’s produced in a completely sterile environment.” Written to please any food scientist as we are obsessed with food safety. Some methods of culturing meat actually use microbes. Keeping a sterile environment is not the issue, but absence of intestinal microbes is an important feature. Clean meat is definitely a much safer product than meat from a feces-producing animal. Perhaps the most important purpose of food processing is to remove or at least greatly reduce the numbers of microbes that can either make us sick or spoil our food. Feces comes with working with living animals as they are loaded with dangerous organisms. Food scientists are dedicated to making sure that processed foods are safer than raw agricultural commodities. In fact, we have been accused of making our food supply too sanitized. The mantra of today is Eat Clean/Live Dirty suggests that our food should be clean of harmful chemicals while dirty with beneficial microbes.

“For whatever reasons, despite the existence of affordable and nutritious vegetarian food, it seemed that whenever a population began escaping poverty, it also began adding more animals to its diet.” In spite of the positive spin on all the benefits of avoiding meat, most people who eat exclusively plant-based food are vegetarians by circumstance and not by choice. Income tends to be the limiting factor that keeps people around the world from eating meat. There are good reasons to eat meat as it is much more than a good source of high-quality protein. Meat is rich in vitamins and essential minerals. Incorporating meat into the diet of young children and growing teenagers, tends to improve the overall quality of a diet. Overconsumption of meat by adults can contribute to obesity and associated chronic diseases, however. Meat consumption is expected to greatly increase around the world as income levels rise, particularly in China and parts of Africa. I suspect that there are many more individuals around the world wishing to become wealthy enough to eat meat than there are people willing to disavow their carnivorous ways.

“trends like locavorism, organic, or GMO-free may get a lot of headlines, but that attention hasn’t translated into major shifts among a large proportion of the population.” Perhaps I protest too much against anti-processed-food rhetoric. Anna Zeide and others tell me that my side is winning and that, despite all the articles telling me to avoid processed food, the country is still eating massive amounts of processed food. Also, there still is a preference for meat despite all the media hype about plant-based diets. And yet, it doesn’t feel like my side is winning. During the Q&A session after my seminar last week at the University of Florida to the Food Science students*, I was asked what can we do when confronted in a social setting about how terrible processed food is. I did not give a good answer. After thinking about it in my car on my way back home the next day the best I could come up with was

What you might mention casually and respectfully, though, is that beer or wine in your hand is a liquid processed food and those snacks on the table are ultra-processed foods. Beyond that I would just walk away. In the long run, planting a seed is more likely to be effective than starting an argument.

I still contend that the food scientist gets caught in the middle between Big Food and the New Food Movement. Big Food just wants to sell product and food writers who have been captured by the Movement have an agenda that supports local, organic, and GMO-free while urging us to avoid processed food. Big Food responds to the pressure by getting food scientists to develop clean products that don’t appear to be processed even though they fit the definition of an ultra-processed food. But I digress.

“you could marble the muscle tissues with healthier monounsaturated fats like the kind found in olive oil, or even omega-3-fatty acids like those found in flax seeds.” I know that product developers are great, BUT this seems like a tall order to me! One thing a food scientist needs to consider when developing a product is the functional properties of the ingredients. At the risk of becoming overly technical, chemicals have physical and chemical properties. All ingredients are composed of chemicals as everything we put into our mouths is chemical. Each ingredient has functional properties which are the roles that it performs in a specific food product. Functional properties are based on the chemical and physical properties of the ingredient’s chemical components as it interacts with molecules from other ingredients present. Note that these chemical reactions also occur in a home-made food like a turkey casserole or a formulated food product like a candy bar or high-protein shake.

Once the product developer starts changing the chemistry of a raw, whole food, it ceases to be natural and becomes synthetic. Thus, the chemical and physical properties of molecules within the cells are altered, in turn modifying their functional properties. Such manipulation leads to possible unintended consequences on flavor, color and other product attributes. Assuming such a transformation is possible, does this allow meat to overcome its lowly nutritional image? OR is meat harmful to human health because it is meat, regardless of how healthy it is within its new chemical profile? Can clean-meat companies start marketing their products as “high in unsaturated fats” or “omega-3 rich?” OR will they get slammed for single nutrient ads? To get us off meat from animals, do the ends justify the means? Just asking.

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 “There’s a certain ‘technophobia’ that many people experience when they hear about new technologies they may not understand.” Welcome to the world of food science. Food scientists dedicate their work to ensure food safety and prevent food waste, but we become targets of those who blame us for all the health problems associated with modern diets. For Shapiro, clean meat is the technological fix to all the problems associated with growing animals for food, environmental degradation resulting from industrial feedlots, safety of farm workers, and maybe even human health. One would think that such an argument would be an easy one to make, but the idea that technology could actually come to the rescue makes it a hard sell in the current food-media environment. When it comes to food, technology is just not natural. When food materials are manipulated, the result ceases to be considered real food by many.

The other major hurdle is how it will be named. Clean meat borrows on the popularity of clean labels. The author devotes twelve pages to the topic of finding the perfect name. Somehow, cultured meat, lab-grown meat, in vitro meat, or synthesized meat are not very appealing terms. Chances are that the success or failure of clean meat will depend on its name and the characterization of that name. Once stigmatized it is difficult to overcome a negative image—high fructose corn syrup, for example. Once ingrained into the public’s consciousness, it is difficult to rename or recharacterize an item. Think of the uproar that would be made if soymilk had to be renamed imitation milk from soybeans or the anger generated when Pluto lost its status as a planet. Whatever name catches on in the public sphere, particularly as it appears on product labels, could make a huge difference. Will clean meat redefine meat as we know it, become a worthy competitor for real meat in the marketplace, or be relegated to a boutique item enjoyed by a small consumer segment?

Next week: Cultured meat: What is it? What should we expect?

*BTW, a shout out to the great group of Food Science students in Gator country. Thanks for your hospitality.

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