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Studies favor diets containing meat but consumers have alternatives

Cattlemen and consumers alike are familiar with traditional meat consumption that has been a part of the human diet for more than 2.6 million years. Still, a recent article in Drovers (August, 2018) referenced a corporate company denying employees reimbursement for meals containing meat.

Given that consumers may be generations removed from production agriculture, it is important to be informed of these nuances and take a proactive role to understand why these consumer movements are occurring. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a trade association providing leadership to traditional meat consuming audiences, has taken a stance to “fight this meat denial” beginning in corporate entities.

'Cultured' meat

Efforts to reduce traditional meat consumption are not new. The idea to culture meat from live animal tissue came about more than a decade ago. In 2013, Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, showcased the first lab-grown burger patty from cultured cells.  

This culturizing process occurs from the extraction of mesenchymal stem cells of an animal. These cells are responsible for the generation of adipose, muscle, cartilage, muscle structure and tendon development. Due to the regenerative nature of these cells, they can be harvested from animals by extraction of a muscle biopsy sample, sorted by cell type (muscle and/or adipose), and grown in media culture for the intention of food use. The media can include salts, sugars, and amino acids dependent upon the metabolic needs of the tissues over time.

The product derived from this process has been described as cultured meat, in-vitro meat or clean meat. These products are not commercialized yet due to sensitive price points and need for defined regulating authority.

NAMI urges that these products be subject to USDA-FSIS regulation for safety and labeling accuracy at retail. Further NAMI has worked to ensure that the lab grown meats are subject to FSIS inspection and have the same regulatory requirements as meat and poultry products. These grown meats will likely not be available for sale for at least the next five years until appropriate jurisdiction and price points are met. Several companies, including Tyson Foods Inc. and Cargill Inc., have invested in this technology.

Plant-based protein

Alternative plant-based proteins are already on the market and demanded by vegetarians and a newer identified consumer known as the “flexitarian.” This consumer type eats a plant-based diet with some meat.

However, plant-based and cultured products are different. The plant-based alternatives are derived from plant protein such as wheat or pea protein whereas cultured products are derived from animal cells.

Appropriate labeling

During the American Meat Science Association Reciprocal Meats Conference in June 2018, a panel of cultured protein specialists presented company research, investment opportunities and regulatory needs for these products. They concluded that cultured or clean meat needs more accurate labeling to not detract from traditional meat products and simply provide consumers another protein option at retail.

It is likely that these products, regardless of labeling, will face significant consumer acceptance challenges as there is little scientific evidence suggesting that the lab grown meat is “cleaner” by food safety tests and more environmentally friendly than traditional meat. Moreover, NAMI suggests that exact product nutrition of lab-grown meat is not available.

Nutritional benefits of traditional beef

Traditional beef repeatedly provides a nutritious protein source. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef offers 25 grams of protein or half of the recommended daily value. Simultaneously it is packed with B6, B12, zinc, phosphorous, niacin, riboflavin, iron, choline and selenium. Lean cuts have less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol, and can be as lean as a 3-ounce skinless chicken thigh, according to the Beef Checkoff.

Food and, particularly, protein choices can be associated with culture and emotion. But it is important to substitute emotion for facts and be aware of beef marketing trends, available technology and consumer demands.

For more facts about lab grown and plant based alternative proteins, visit the NAMI media mythcrusher page. For the legal definition of meat, refer to Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 54, Chapter 1 (7 CFR 54.1) where the term Meat means: 

the edible part of the muscle of an animal, which is skeletal, or which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus, and which is intended for human food, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of bone, skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and which are not separated from it in the process of dressing. This term does not include the muscle found in the lips, snout, or ears.

Regardless of marketing trends, removing animals from the U.S. and the human diet would result in only slight reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and cause deficiencies of essential nutrients, according to a study by White and Hall published in the 2017 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Moreover, the U.S. GDP is projected to continue to rise through 2030 and will likely correspond with more money being spent on protein.

Ultimately, consumer acceptance of technology will drive development of products, but it is unlikely to have a significant influence on traditional protein consumption within the near future.

Megan Webb is an Extension beef specialist and assistant professor in the animal science department who specializes in beef production systems.

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