Ahead of the Curve: Food Fight

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

If you’re not interested in eating, you can skip this article and move on to the next.

The technology underlying what we eat has changed enormously over the past century, from frozen food to fast food to organics to the “Green Revolution” (arguably humanity’s greatest achievement of the twentieth century). The decades ahead promise even greater change, which can be tremendously beneficial—unless powerful vested interests get in the way.

I’ve written here before about the potential for producing meat—real meat, originating from real animals—in a manufacturing facility rather than via the traditional slaughter method. I won’t repeat all that here; suffice it to say that the potential benefits to the environment are breathtaking. So is the reduction in cruelty to animals. If none of that moves you, consider that factory-produced meat will most likely someday be cheaper than slaughtered meat—now you’ve got my attention.

Factory-produced meat isn’t ready for prime time just yet. For one thing the price isn’t low enough. But it’s close. The key now is to overcome the understandable consumer reluctance to embrace something so new. Unfortunately, there’s a potentially vicious circle at work. If investors are overly worried about consumer acceptance, they won’t invest. If investors don’t back the research, the price won’t drop. If the price doesn’t drop, the whole concept craters.

Investors’ perception of consumer acceptance of this advance hinges to a great extent on what it can and cannot be called. Picture yourself standing at the meat counter, comparing a package labeled “pork loin” with a similarly priced package labeled “clean pork,” or maybe “craft pork.” Some of us might lean toward the latter. What about a package labeled “laboratory-produced imitation pork-like substance”? Yuck! Who’d want to buy that? What sane investor would risk real money trying to lower the price of something that the law required carry such a name?

The battle is playing out, right now, over what the label on that package can and cannot say. The marketing wizards in the factory-produced meat association have settled on “clean” as their differentiating word of choice. Clean hamburger, clean chicken, clean bacon, etc. (They briefly toyed with “green,” but wisely rejected it. If you’ve ever had green meat in your refrigerator, you definitely did not want to eat it.)

Their opponents in the thousands-of-times-larger slaughtered-meat industry are fighting them tooth and nail and want to crush these upstarts before they get off the ground. “Clean meat” is unacceptable, they say, because “it implies that traditional beef is dirty.” It wouldn’t matter what name was suggested, though—the meat tycoons would be against it because they want to annihilate the competition. Maybe “Frankenfood” might satisfy them. “Our marching orders were to protect beef nomenclature,” their spokeswoman said. One rancher was even blunter: “Their goal is to eliminate animal agriculture—they clearly state that—how can you not feel some animosity?”

Meat isn’t the only source of naming contention. The dairy industry is trying to undercut soy milk and almond milk by demanding they be called something else. Ostensibly, this is to prevent consumer confusion. Are you confused? Do you think soy milk comes from cows and is somehow deliberately flavored to taste like soybeans, in the same manner as chocolate milk? Me neither.

Battles similar to this go back a long way. I can remember my mother telling me, long ago, that when she was a little girl the margarine for sale was pure white like lard, and came with a little packet of coloring that you would blend in to make it look more like butter. I can also recall silently assigning this to the “Yeah, mom, sure they did” category. But she was absolutely right. That’s when you could get margarine at all—and even then it was heavily taxed, thanks to the dairy lobby. Some other states tried to defeat the powder-mixing ploy by requiring that margarine be colored pink. In places like Wisconsin (until 1967) and Quebec (until 2008) sale of butter-colored margarine was a crime, right up there with sale of heroin or high explosives. I’m sure the slaughtered-meat lobby today is studying these tactics closely.

The meta-game here, before rule-makers finally get down to making rules, is who is going to be charged with making them. There’s already a classic Washington turf war being waged between the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about who should have jurisdiction over these new products. The DoA has a mission and mindset of protecting America’s farmers—the folks who see the new product as an existential threat. The FDA has a mission and mindset of protecting America’s consumers—you and me. Who would you like to see prevail? The unfortunate reality today is that Trump’s political base is the existing rural area power structure, and his administration has a deep distrust of science. So when government finally weighs in on the meat-naming controversy, the results are quite likely to favor the entrenched slaughtered-meat interests. Besides, they have more far more lobbying money to throw around.

For those of us who just like to eat, the principles involved in regulation ought to be simple:

(1) It ought to be clear from the packaging, and not just in the fine print, whether you are buying a traditionally produced product or something produced in a new way. One legal commentator has argued that factory-produced meat already fits precisely within the longstanding Department of Agriculture definition of “meat,” and therefore needs no special identifier at all. But no one should be duped into buying something they don’t want, in either direction.

(2) If there’s a new way of providing something that consumers want, government should not stand in the way just to protect rich, established industries.

(3) If there is any tilt at all, government should lean in favor of the new forms of meat production, not the other way. Even if you’re not absolutely convinced about the human effect on global warming, the evidence suggesting that animal agriculture—cow farts, to be precise—have a powerful negative effect is strong enough to warrant such a tilt. Plus, any reduction in the mass misery of the animals grown in factory conditions is something even a militant meat-eater like me would be happy to see.