The Farcical Battle Over What to Call Lab-Grown Meat

The FDA held a public meeting to talk about it, but no one could agree on what to call it.

Hamburger in petri dish
Mark Post holds the world's first lab-grown beef burger in 2013 (David Parry / Reuters )

On Thursday, in a small but packed auditorium, the FDA convened a public meeting about lab-grown meat—but you wouldn’t have known that if you were listening for those words. According to the FDA, it was actually about “foods produced using animal-cell culture technology.”

And according to the meeting’s various speakers, it was “clean meat,” or “artificial meat,” or “in vitro meat,” or “cell-culture products,” or “ cultured meat,” or “cultured tissue” (not meat!). This is a war of words, with each one chosen to evoke specific associations. And it is a war to define lab-grown meat as either the exciting future of food or a freak science experiment.

It comes at a critical moment. Well-funded start-ups such as Memphis Meats have been feeding their lab-grown chicken to curious tasters. Traditional-meat producers such as Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested money in lab-grown animal protein. The field has made enough progress that the FDA decided to convene a public meeting to discuss how lab-grown meat should be regulated.

Meat producers—particularly beef producers—question whether it should be called “meat” at all. That’s why Rhonda Miller, the former president of the American Meat Science Association, chose to call it “cultured tissue” in her presentation. “Meat scientists do not have enough information on cultured tissue to determine whether it should be called meat,” she said, pointing out that lab-grown meat companies haven’t exactly made samples available for study.

Maggie Nutter of the United States Cattlemen’s Association began her four minutes of public comment by introducing herself as a fourth-generation Montana rancher who is training her children and grandchildren to be fifth- and sixth-generation ranchers. It was an appeal to tradition—to the idea of family farms and pastoral ways.

If nostalgia for traditional foodways is one pole for the current food movement, the other is environmental and social responsibility. That’s why activists have leapt from the favored scientific term cultured meat (referring to the cell cultures in which it grows) to clean meat. Clean serves many roles here: It echoes clean energy. It’s a nod to the lack of animal slaughter. And it refers to the sterile conditions under which the meat cells grow. “We call this sector clean meat,” said Jessica Almy of the Good Food Institute at the FDA meeting. Her organization had previously run a survey that showed consumers were most likely to purchase a product labeled “clean” over “safe,” “pure,” “cultured,” or “meat 2.0.”

Clean meat, not surprisingly, riles up beef producers. Danielle Beck, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), told me on the phone last week that the term is inherently offensive to traditional-meat producers, as if real meat is somehow dirty. The NCBA has also called lab-grown meat “fake meat” and has said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA, should regulate the field.

Jack Bobo, the chief communications officer of the biotech company Intrexon, favors the term craft meat over clean meat. The dinner table isn’t the place for moralizing, he told me at Thursday’s meeting. Why not use a term that evokes craft breweries and hand-jarred pickles instead? The debate over what to call lab-grown meat is a debate over what values we deem most important in food.

The only speaker at the meeting who deliberately and repeatedly used the term lab-grown meat was Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union, the organization that also publishes Consumer Reports. Hansen noted that Consumer Reports conducted a survey in June asking respondents which of seven terms would be the most accurate label. At the bottom of the list were in vitro meat (8 percent), clean meat (9 percent), and cultured meat (11 percent).

At the top of the list was, at 35 percent, well, the term nobody else at the meeting wanted to utter: lab-grown meat. The war of words is on, but maybe it is already won.