Cultured Meat, Nutrition and Labeling

For several years now, the USDA and FDA have been meeting about a new idea in food production currently referred to as "cultured meat."  I don't have an immediate knee jerk reaction to it since I've worked in a lab, growing things in petri dishes, but I do notice that there are two concerning aspects for me.  First, the discussion around labeling has unfortunate echoes of the labeling arguments around GMOs in the 1990s.  And second, hardly anyone is discussing the nutritional value or the opportunities for engineering meat with specific amounts of both macro or micro nutrients (that is protein, fat, vitamins and minerals).

As Americans we have chronic deficiencies of certain nutrients, even the healthy.  It's even worse for those with Celiac Disease that directly causes malnutrition.  While I can understand why this wouldn't be the first issue addressed by the potential manufacturers of this food, I think, if they did address nutrition (not just protein) somewhere in the process of innovation, it would be a sign that they care about how their product affects people, more than they care about regulatory details. I want to see them caring about my health, not making excuses about why I should just accept their offerings so they can make money.

Corporate vs Customer Interests

The problem I have with things like GMO and non-Organic food are because manufacturers are much more concerned about their corporate image and finding new markets (sometimes with appalling world trade tactics), and don't seem very concerned about making a good product that everyone wants. GMO manufacturers usually use scare tactics like "Oh no, we're going to have global famine unless you accept our products."  My reply is, "Make a high quality product I want, and I won't complain how you made it. Additionally, let me decide whether I want a label."

GMO manufacturers love to dismiss the public as "ignorant" about genetics.  Thankfully, that tactic doesn't work with me. I became interested in GMOs and their labeling in the 1990s when I was finishing my science degree and wrote my senior project (BS in Environmental Science) partly with the assistance (and eventual withdrawal of assistance) of a Monsanto employee.  I wanted, as I do now, to understand all aspects of it, including the corporate view of their product.  

Unfortunately, they showed they cared not a bit for reasoned academic discourse when they cut off assistance after I asked what their view is on the travel of corn pollen from a GM farm to a neighboring one. Until that moment, I saw myself as simply chronicling the development of GM foods, as an undergrad does. Any position I might take on the matter, I assumed would come later when I was defending a master's or doctor's thesis.  They made a mistake that day, not because I'm some kind of powerful force that can stop them, but because I know they don't care about farmers or customers, only profit and they can't dismiss me with the ignorant label. 

I have high standards for what I think should be in food (and shouldn't).  And every food manufacturer, farmer, and farming supplier, regardless of market position should have high standards too.  I don't have any reason to want glyphosate in my food, or several other "features" of GMO farming today. Nothing they can say about how supposedly safe the chemical is will make me accept it.  Similarly, food production and 'low price leader' should be unrelated goals. The first goal should always be nutrition, otherwise there is no value in it and customers are paying for substandard products.  Is that what we want our American quality of life to be?  I would argue, that Americans should have more self respect than that.

I have no problem with a corporation seeking profit, as long as they're providing a valuable, high quality product for that profit. A case in point would be Organic Eggs which have taken an image hit recently with a lawsuit against Nellie's and Pete and Gerry's.  I'm not ready to crucify those companies just yet, though, because first, I think the vegan community is tainted by bad actors attempting to use their community as cover for corporate bully tactics.  And second, I use Cornucopia Institute as the watchdog for Organic, not PETA.  And Pete and Gerry's is listed at a score of 3 out of 5 according to them.  I'm sure there is evidence if there is a lawsuit, but I urge caution before anyone jumps to any conclusions.

If some manufacturing aspect is being done the "quick and dirty way" the reason should always be due to technical reasons or because it's a happy coincidence that you get a better product that way.  The reason should never be because it causes higher profits for the company, if it results in a lowering of quality. The making of food should be a good in itself, and that "good" is expressed in the subsidies provided to farmers and food manufacturers.  It should lead to corporate behavior that chooses to provide high quality food, not behavior that produces a subpar item because they're trying to hold costs down. The subsidy is holding costs down.  No double dipping.

Current Chicken Production as an Example

To illustrate what I mean by no double dipping, consider the hefty criticism of the Chicken production industry.  Either it's been criticized for being inhumane, or for producing diseased meat, or for forcing farmers into a new form of sharecropping, or for getting "corporate welfare."  Everyone has sharp comments about it, on all sides of the political spectrum.

The "factory farmed" chicken industry not only takes a large subsidy, but then continues to abdicate its duty to produce a high quality nutritious food for people.  It does so by cutting corners whenever possible and micromanaging farmers. This includes growing meat without benefit of natural sunlight or fresh air.  Thus producing food with several problems, including a substandard Vitamin D status --  during an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency!  I'm forced to wonder why this sort of behavior isn't criminal.  It certainly contributes to human disease.

NOTE:  I would not show a traumatizing gory video about animal treatment.  We've had enough of that.  

The next video sums up how dysfunctional our chicken production is in theUS, and manages to get a bit of humor into the grim story. There are many news articles about this and I will follow the video with a selection. 

 I want to say that I'm proud of my fellow North Carolinians for participating in blowing the whistle on the practices and calling for a more natural and rational method of farming.  As the video points out, farming chickens is now cruel to humans as well as chickens.  I'd also say it's cruel to the customers because we're missing essential nutrients that should be in the meat, but isn't. This is a good way to become better acquainted with the problems of producing nutritious food.  When an industry both cuts corners to this extreme, and demands a subsidy, we have a serious problem. People usually close their eyes before noticing because the issue is messy and really, who needs another stressor?

However, producing nutritious food that is a benefit to farmers as well as customers, is too important to ignore.

More reading about chicken farming:
A non-muckraking article just in general, about the process (read first)    

Meat Production with Cultured Meat

 So now that we have a background into current farming practice for non-organic chicken, as an example, let's get back to "lab grown meat" or "cultured meat."  The innovators would rather you called it cultured meat and I have no reason to be rude about it, so I'll stick with that.  However, a lot of the critical articles call it "lab meat" or worse, so I have to mention it, much like a balanced discussion on the health care law needs to include both "ACA" and "Obamacare" if you're going to seek out both sides of the debate.  My purpose with this article isn't to slam anyone's business, but to open the conversation into the concerns of customers such as nutrition.
I do not participate in any kind of food shaming.  Certain groups may shame others for eating meat, but I strongly disagree with that.  Others may shame people for eating beans, grains or milk, but I strongly disagree with that too. Ill people can't be shoehorned into someone's food ideology because nutritional status is an individual matter.   Additionally, I object strongly to traumatizing videos about animal slaughter for food, and consider them a form of assault when widely distributed for the purpose of shaming people into not eating meat.  And I think that the best way to reform our meat system, including improving the humane aspects, is to work from a place of appreciating meat for its value to human nutrition.  Most of us need it, so let's work on doing it better.

On the humane front, cultured meat is far preferable to raising a creature and then later killing it. I've participated in the slaughter of a pig and a goat in my lifetime.  If you think you could do that without feeling anything, I'd be very doubtful, and even if you could, why would you want to?  The continuing debate of whether people are basically good or basically bad (and need to be educated into good behavior) would put anyone into the category of "bad" if they lack compassion.  So I can't see why anyone would brag that they don't care about animal slaughter.  Let's dispense with empty bravado.

Cultured meat might provide a way for ethically conflicted people who nevertheless need the nutrition in meat (not just the protein) to provide for their body's needs.  This would provide a benefit both socially and economically as more people can feel good about the source of their meat, assuming they also feel good about the quality of it.

It also holds the promises of less disease and faster production.  In a world that currently serves semi-sick animals to millions, and still manages to undernourish everyone, not just the poor, we should be very interested in this technology. Interested doesn't mean blind acceptance though. And this is the perfect time for mothers, ill people, prison rights advocates, elderly caregivers, and every customer of meat products to research and speak up on what they want from meat.

Here's my first concern:  cultured meat will probably lack sufficient collagen and healthy fat, because they're probably focusing on muscle cells.  I need to research that, and if you care about things like "bone broth" you need to research that too.  Then we both need to make our wishes known to the USDA and FDA and anyone planning to manufacture this meat.  

My next concern:  will organ meat be produced this way? Because I'd welcome cultured lung meat, which tastes like a less bitter version of liver and contains a lot of nutrition you don't get from muscles (when it comes from an animal).  If a cultured lung would give me the same or similar nutrition (not just protein), I'd feel very favorable to such a product.  Currently the lungs are used to check for disease and are discarded. I'm not the only fan of lung meat, it's comes up again and again on forums as a meat that people miss, and drives a minority of hunters to hunt, partly because they can't get certain organs any other way. 

Overall, I see a lot of discussion about regulations but not nearly enough about nutrition. If customers are successful in being part of the process and a high quality product is produced, we may be able to avert the kind of acrimony that happened with GMOs.  As a veteran of the GMO fight for labeling, I can tell you the effects of it are still felt today, and it's why I have focused on Organic labeling for my entire adult life. Let's not have that happen again with another promising food technology.

Speaking of Organic, I think it's time Organic regulators and certifiers defined, as well as possible what the characteristics are of a nutritious organic food. Attempts have been made already to illustrate what a food loses when it isn't produced according to Organic (that is old fashioned, chemical free) standards.  Those attempts have been ridiculed, but I don't think they've been discredited. It stands to reason if I grow a plant with chemical NPK fertilizer, it has less nutrition than if I raise it with compost.  It's common sense.  And if I feed that organic plant to an organic animal, it now receives more nutrition, so I get a better meat. That's the actual standard of nutrition for meat, not the currently factory farmed stuff.

The word "nutrition" itself is badly defined (just look at whether or not Choline is a vitamin).  But even with such a limited definition, of providing low levels of essential nutrients that have been identified, we still manage, as Americans to be malnourished.  And no, it's not because we eat junk food, that's just one aspect.  It's also because our non junk foods are being systematically lowered in quality. 

Thus, enough was enough, and in the 1980s people started to certify organic foods, then in the 1990s, the threat of GMOs going unlabeled into the market led to the USDA regulating the Organic label nationally.  Much has been said about that, but I'm grateful they did it. It's a compromise I can live with, though it keeps high quality food out of the hands of those who need it most: the poor. 

With cultured meat, this situation can turn around.  Affordable high quality meat might be produced, if we demand it.  If we can define what nutrition we expect to be in meat, then this technology has a chance to satisfy our needs and satisfy our desire to be more humane to animals.  It could be a feel good story.  But we need to recover our self respect as Americans who demand a high quality of life, for all of us, not just the rich.

I ask you to read more about this subject and talk with your regulators, legislators and your friends.  let's have a groundswell of polite interest in this new technology and let's demand that our wishes as customers are heard and acted upon.  We've had decades now to read pubmed, and they can't say we're "the ignorant public" anymore. As recent medical history has shown me, we can't afford to just trust our corporations and regulators anymore.  We must provide input that helps. 

Read More About Cultured Meat

FDLI (an FDA consultant firm)  writes about celll cultured meat here.
This article was inspired by today's USDA press release that can be found here.
If your child is searching for a school essay or science project, you might be interested in this student level article explaining the technology.

Grass Fed and Organic Cattle and Dairy

Grass Fed is not a government regulated claim, but there are third party certifications to provide more transparency for customers. The cattle industry has been resistant to the Organic label because of cost.  You can read more about it here.

From 2010, from USDA about Organic cattle's access to pasture. 


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