What Is Meat? (And Who Gets to Decide That?)

Field Roast's FieldBurger doesn't pretend to be meat; it just aims to be similarly satisfying. (Photo: Field Roast Grain Meat Company)

These days, even people who would never consider going vegetarian full-time enjoy meals that are plant-based. After all, meals packed with veggies, beans and whole grains are good for you, better for the planet, and often cheaper. And for those who still eat animals, it's true that steak, roast chicken or pork ribs are more enjoyable when eaten less frequently — or so my omnivorous partner tells me. As a vegetarian, I'm the minority, but as a person who enjoys all types of protein, my partner is one of a growing number of omnivores who eat plenty of veggie meals, too.

As more people explore animal-free diets, high-protein chunks, patties, nuggets, fillets and balls made from veggies, processed vegetable proteins and beans have flooded the market. Then there are the lab-grown meats, which are made from the same building blocks as an animal but don't come from the body of a once-whole animal.

There are lots of options — just don't call any of the above "meat."

As much as everyone is enjoying foods made from veggies and grains, the nomenclature has gotten contentious, with farmers, animal agriculture orgs, restauranteurs and eaters fighting a battle of words.

Can a baked combination of beans, lentils and eggs be called veggie meatloaf? Is it sausage if it's made from soy protein instead of pork, but with the same herbs and spices as chorizo? Is the Impossible Burger still a burger if we define burgers as made from a beef patty only? (And then what about a burger made from turkey? Is that still a burger since it's meat, or not a burger since it's not beef?)

Impossible Burger from Umami Burger.
The Impossible Burger as prepared by Umami Burger. (Photo: Umami Burger)

The definition of meat

So what IS meat, anyway? You might guess that the dictionary defines it as something like "animal flesh" and indeed, one of Merriam-Webster's definitions for the word is "animal tissue considered especially as food." But that's actually the second of four definitions — and the newest one. The others have nothing to do with animals.

In fact the origin of the word is (again, according to Webster's):

Middle English mete "food, meal," going back to Old English, going back to Germanic *mati- (whence Old Saxon meti, mat "food," Old High German maz, Old Norse matr, Gothic mats), perhaps going back to Indo-European *mod-i-, derivative of a verbal base *med- "become full," whence Greek mestós "full, satiated"

The above history is why the first definition for the word meat is "food; especially: solid food as distinguished from drink."

So, as far as the dictionary goes, you can call almost any food meat. Think about it; we do when we talk about peeling the shell of a nut to get to its "meat," the edible part underneath.

All this considered, there's nothing currently stopping alt-meats of any kind from calling themselves by the M word, though veggie-meat products usually go for the pun or the cute name that makes it clear what they are, some right in the name of the product itself. Think: Fakin' Bacon, Tofurky, Phoney Bologna, Gardenburger and soysage. Meat-industry advocates claim this can be confusing to consumers, but in 25 years of vegetarianism, I've never seen it happen. Nobody ever thought Not Dogs (which, pro-tip, are by far the best veg hot dogs) were made from pigs.

Photo: Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

When it comes to lab-grown meats, there's even less of a reason not to call them "meat." After all, as Jessica Almy, the policy director of the nonprofit Good Food Institute (which promotes alternatives to eating animals), told Phys.org, "These are muscles and fat. It would be extremely misleading to call it other than meat." When it comes to meat grown in a facility, rather than created from a living, breathing, feeling animal, the end product is made from the same molecules and compounds.

These new lab meat companies have come out swinging, calling the whole enterprise "clean meat," which "refers to products that are grown in cell cultures from animal stem cells (also called 'cultured meat' or 'synthetic meat'). The processes for clean meat production have developed along with broader advances in tissue engineering, many in the medical field," according to Beveridge and Diamond, a law-firm specializing in the topic of sustainable food.

And this isn't some far-off food of the future; it's happening. Just five years after the debut of the first clean-meat burger, which was created by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, costs are down to 1/50th of what they were. Memphis Meats out of San Francisco and Mosa Meats (Post's company) plan to sell burgers for $10 a patty by 2020. According to CleanMeat.org, "The end goal is to produce clean meat that is cheaper than even the least expensive conventionally produced chicken. Leading experts believe that is achievable within 10 years given adequate support for clean meat research and development."

A war of words

Some in the animal agriculture industry are gearing up for a fight — not about the health and safety of a competitive product, and not to run a campaign about how their product is better — but about words, maybe because they can't really compete on the other points. Should different types of meat be clearly labeled? Absolutely. But it's still all meat. In response to lab-grown flesh and other veggie-derived products being labeled meat, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) has already petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to restrict use of certain words:

The "beef" and "meat" labels should inform consumers that the products are from animals harvested in the traditional manner, as opposed to derived from alternative proteins or artificially grown in laboratories. As such, the definitions of "beef" and "meat" should be limited to animals born, raised, and processed in the traditional manner, regardless of the country of origin. Synthetic products and products grown in labs from animal cells should thus not qualify to be labeled as "beef" or as "meat."

Similarly, a 2018 law in Missouri limits which products can be called meat. Part of a larger agricultural bill, the law states, "This act also prohibits misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry." A coalition of groups, including meat-alternative company Tofurky, have sued the state over the law, saying it's an attempt to stop competition from non-meat products. But it's a growing trend; since that law passed 11 other states have passed laws to regulate labeling, according to Environmental Health News.

"No one buys Tofurky plant-based deli slices thinking they were carved from a slaughtered animal any more than people are buying almond milk thinking it was squeezed from a cow’s udder," says a press release from the Good Food Institute, a group that funds plant-based alternatives to animal products and a party to the lawsuit.

mushroom burger
This is definitely a mushroom burger. (Photo: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

These moves both beg the question: Who gets to decide what words mean? A company? An industry? Scientists? People who eat?

Animal agriculture is running scared — their friends in the dairy industry have seen about 10 percent of their market share taken by non-animal-derived milks, cheeses, and yogurts — but instead of doing any of a number of things like diversifying what they sell (why don't traditional dairy companies also make nut milks?), or improving the treatment of their animals to win customers back who are put off by their industry's practices — they are attacking words. Why not just compete fairly?

Interestingly, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (a different organization from the USCA), which includes meat processors and distributors in its membership, hasn't signed the USDA petition. Maybe that's because "ultimately most meat producers will have some stake in [lab-grown meats] and it will be a successful outcome," Chris Kerr, from New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in food companies, told Phys.org.

Americans are still eating plenty of meat derived from whole animals, though they've shifted to lower-impact animals like chicken from CO2-belching cows. It's in the interests of individuals and the Earth's health to eat less of something that's so costly in so many ways: Growing a cow to slaughter for a pound of protein, as opposed to growing a pound of any vegetable protein, costs much more fresh water, energy and subsequent CO2 emissions. (The chart above puts things into perspective.)

Then there's the health of entire ecosystems, which are governed by top predators like cougars and wolves — the same animals that cattle farmers notoriously kill to protect their herds. And of course there's antibiotics, the use of which in animal agriculture has endangered the health of all of us.

Even if the Cattlemen's Association wins this one, it won't keep their product from being harmful to the future of humanity and other life on Earth; that's inherent to how their industry is run. They can adapt to new meat products, and get involved in a sustainable food future, or get out of the way. Because we can't feed 10 billion human beings burgers the way we're doing it now without destroying ourselves in the process.