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When is meat actually 'meat'?

For meat lovers, the Fourth of July has historically been a perfect excuse to throw some steaks on the backyard grill.

Meat grown in a lab

And those steaks usually come from actual cattle. But these days, as a recent Wired article reported, efforts are under way to develop so-called "cultured meat" – that is, meat grown in a laboratory, typically with the help of animal cells. Some reportedly argue that such "meat" would be more ethical and more environmentally friendly than meat derived directly from animals.

Suspicious meats

Besides beef, scientists are reported to be working on growing fish, chicken, egg whites – even foie gras, a luxury food product typically made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened. And while the manufacture of cultured meat remains costly (as Wired noted, one pound of a type of cultured meat currently costs the manufacturer $2,400), there are reportedly hopes that the technique could be made more cost-efficient in the near future.

Bug, 3D-printed meat

Efforts also are under way to develop other meat alternatives, including "bug" meat and 3D-printed meat. For example, Bloomberg reported that, in 2017, a Swiss supermarket chain had begun to stock "beef" products based on beetle larvae. And The Australian has reported on 3D printing "meat" using "chains of peptides that are identical in composition to meat proteins but that have 'bio-synthesized' by bacteria and algae in a Petri dish environment."

Nonetheless, the question remains: Is cultured meat actually "meat?"

In February of this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety, and Inspection Service (FSIS) accepted a petition asking the department to answer that question – in the negative.

U.S. Cattlemen’s Association weighs in

The petition, submitted on behalf of the U.S. Cattlemen's Association requests the agency to limit a regulatory definition of "beef" to "product from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner." The petition asked the FSIS to prohibit products "derived from alternative sources, such as synthetic product from plants, insects, or non-animal components and any product grown in the lab from animal cells" from being labeled as "beef".

Of note, federal statute 7 CFR 54.1 currently defines "meat" as, in part, "the edible part of the muscle of an animal, which is skeletal, or which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus, and which is intended for human food, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of bone, skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and which are not separated from it in the process of dressing." c

Confusion of jurisdiction

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also expressed interest in considerations related to cultured meat, particularly food safety.

However, confusion reportedly exists about which federal agency has jurisdiction over cultured and other synthetic meat products. According to Science, a recently introduced bill seeks to clarify the issue: the draft spending bill from the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations panel included a proposal that would "put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of regulating products made from the cells of livestock or poultry, and instructs the agency to issue rules about how it will oversee their manufacture and labeling."

And at least one state, Missouri, has reportedly taken up the issue. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the state has passed legislation that, in part, "states that if a product isn’t derived from an actual cow, chicken, turkey or some other animal with two or four feet, it can’t be marketed as meat."

Impact on insurance exposure

From an insurance perspective, the question of what constitutes "meat" could potentially impact some exposures related to advertising injury and product descriptions, particularly when issues arise related to labeling certain products as "meat". Associated allergens potentially related to cultured meats may be an issue.

More generally, if there is a general shift away from "traditional" meat toward "cultured" meat, underwriting considerations for everything from food manufacturers to supermarkets may change: the product exposures from a laboratory creating food may be quite different from those contemplated on a farm or traditional food facility. These products – whether they end up being called meat or not – could have significantly different product recall exposures than, say, beef from cattle. After all, laboratories are not ranches.

In any event, as of today, your Fourth of July steak probably wasn't grown in a lab. It may be in the future, but whether it'll be called "meat" remains to be seen.

The landscape of risk is changing. Learn how ISO Emerging Issues can help keep you on track. 


Lucian McMahon

Lucian McMahon, CPCU, AU-M, ARM-E is a Manager of Research and Modeling for AIR Worldwide with the Arium group. Arium uses supply chain relationships to help organizations understand and quantify their exposure to casualty catastrophe events. You can learn more about Arium here.

You can contact Lucian at lucian.mcmahon@verisk.com.


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