Food fight: the anger shows no sign of waning

From corn in beer to cultured meat, heated disagreements over how food is produced continue to grow in intensity

CORRECTIONa previous version of this story incorrectly stated that JUST Meat has produced chicken breasts in the lab. The company is called JUST and it has produced chicken meat in the lab that was made into bite-sized nuggets. JUST has a distribution agreement in Europe with German poultry giant PHW Group, not PNW Group. And a former board member was the number two guy at DuPont. JUST spokesperson Andrew Noyes said they no longer refer to their product as clean meat.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Sonny Perdue had a surefire way to end his 2019 Commodity Classic speech to a round of thunderous applause.

“I don’t know if you all watched the Super Bowl at all but there was a commercial on there talking about some products, which some of you corn growers may have produced and they don’t use it anymore,” said the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

“Well, guess what? I don’t use theirs anymore either.”

Perdue was referring to a Bud Light advertisement boasting that its beer is no longer made with corn syrup.

The commercial caused an uproar in the U.S. farm sector. The National Corn Growers Association, which represents more than 300,000 farmers, immediately tweeted its disappointment in Bud Light and thanked Miller Light and Coors Light for supporting agriculture.

Coors Light paid for a big advertisement on the carpet outside the entrance to the trade show of the Commodity Classic, an event that attracted about 9,000 delegates.

The ad said, “we’re proud of our ingredients and the farmers who grow them.”

Bars and restaurants in Orlando where the Commodity Classic was held ran out of Coors Light and Miller Light but had plenty of Bud Light that farmers refused to drink.

In a news conference with reporters following his speech to the delegates, Perdue said he was sick and tired of the food fights going on in America, which was ironic considering he just played a role in escalating one.

He referred to some of the cutthroat marketing going on by groups such as the organic sector.

“You built a US$50 billion market. Let’s don’t denigrate other people who do things different than you,” he said.

“I’m asking people overall in the food business to talk about your products in a positive way and give all its attributes but try not to imply the way someone else is doing it is wrong or unsafe or unhealthy or inhumane or other things.”

His words appear to be falling on deaf ears. Two days before his remarks, a food fight erupted at the Bayer AgVocacy Forum at a nearby hotel in Orlando.

Andrew Noyes, head of communications at JUST, informed delegates about cell-cultured meat production.

The company grows meat from a cell in a laboratory, eliminating the need to raise animals on the farm and slaughter them.

It has successfully produced chicken meat in the lab that was made into bite-sized nuggets. They hope to be selling it to restaurants within a few years.

Fellow panelist Kevin Kester, past-president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said farmers are referring to the product as “fake meat” in an effort to generate attention about the product and how it differs from what they produce.

“You’ve done a good job getting people’s attention,” said Noyes with a grin.

Kester fired back that proponents of cultured meat refer to it as “clean meat,” which is a pejorative term that suggests farm-raised meat is somehow dirty by comparison.

He was also annoyed by the suggestion that cultured meat uses way less water and emits fewer greenhouse gases than farm-raised meat.

“There is no data because there’s no products even developed yet, so all that is a false narrative,” said Kester.

Noyes acknowledged it is true that there is no cultured meat commercially available anywhere in the world.

But regulatory agencies are starting to pave the way for commercial introduction. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said they had come to a formal agreement on the regulatory oversight of the product.

Kester said he hopes any meat product that comes out of the lab is subject to the same inspection process as conventional meat.

Noyes said a product produced in a sterile lab shouldn’t be subjected to the same process as one that comes from a slaughter plant.

Kester said one of the main reasons his association is concerned about JUST is that its board of directors has connections to activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“We have a concern in the cattle industry that there are ulterior motives,” he said.

Noyes said Kester was likely referring to the chief executive officer of JUST’s ties to the Good Food Institute.

However, he noted that the company has officials with a broad array of backgrounds. For instance, one of their former directors was the number two guy at DowDuPont and the board has an adviser that is chief executive officer of one of the biggest meat companies in the world.

Noyes said the company just signed an agreement with PHW, one of Germany’s largest poultry producers, and is working with a Japanese beef company on making lab-based Wagyu beef.

“You guys are our partners in this endeavor,” he told Kester.

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