New rules needed for simulated meat products

Cattle ranchers who have spent years carefully raising their herds to supply meat to generations of people will soon face a new challenge — that of simulated beef, either made from plants or cultured in a laboratory.

Some people may dismiss this development as a future extravagance, but make no mistake, what’s coming is nothing less than an all-out assault on the environmental and ethical practices of cattle producers.

Advertising campaigns will challenge the validity, even the existence, of cattle producers. It’s not as far away as one might imagine — think autonomous and electric cars.

This needs to be addressed, in part, at the grocery store through proper labelling so consumers can make choices about what is essentially an imitation product.

Meat based on plant proteins is already commercially available, while cultured meat that is grown in a lab, or what proponents like to call “clean meat”, is further away, but there is a large, well-funded industry devoted to making it happen.

And they’re already trashing cattle. Not just obliquely, by calling their own products ethical or sustainable, but by brazenly attacking the live-animal industry.

In a story on high-tech website Wired.com, an official from Finless Foods touts lab-grown fish as “non-vegan, non vegetarian real fish meat without mercury, without the plastic, without the environmental devastation and without the animal cruelty.”

Impossible Foods chief executive officer Pat Brown, whose company specializes in plant-based, simulated meats, wrote a piece recently warning about health risks from red meat, arguing his company’s product is produced “without the use of hormones, or antibiotics, does not create a reservoir for dangerous pathogens, and contains no cholesterol or slaughterhouse contaminants.”

If all those who eat beef burgers instead switched to Impossible Foods’ plant-based product, wrote Brown, “the positive impact on our planet and global health would be profound.”

When it comes to selling these products at the grocery store, it’s likely that plant-based products will occupy a “protein aisle” where it will likely be sold in the manner that “veggie burgers” are sold today, except with the claim that it tastes like meat.

But cultured product makers may try to claim status as the real thing. In labelling rules, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends that food companies not make “claims that suggest some foods are good while other are bad, or associated guilt with certain foods.” And they should not make claims that “suggest a competitor’s product contains harmful or undesirable ingredients.”

Yet, in media campaigns that’s exactly what is happening.

The industry will have to fight back. But for the purposes of package labelling, consumers have a right to know whether the product is what they believe it is.

We have railed against the practice of excessive labelling in the past, mainly because it is either used as a non-tariff trade barrier (country-of-origin labelling), or it’s misleading, as in containing warnings about red meat because of one element (beef fat), without including the many benefits.

But cultured products are not the original thing. They are taken from cells of animals and grown in Petrie dishes. Will the industry be permitted to call this “clean meat?”

CFIA guidelines would suggest not.

It is important that the consumer be able to distinguish between cultured products and cattle-produced meat, especially as ground product, at the grocery store.

The CFIA’s labelling principles exist now as recommendations. With the food industry changing rapidly, it should consider whether recommendations need to be turned into absolute rules.

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