Meat?
Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet (Flickr)

It’s hard to define “meat.” The word comes from the Old English “mete,” for food—but what is it today? Can flesh grown from animal cells in a bioreactor be called meat? On Tuesday, Missouri became the first U.S. state to prohibit the use of the word “meat” for any product “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”

By this definition, as far as I can tell, deer is not meat, but elk is, based on the state’s definition of “livestock” and “poultry.” Roadkill is also not meat. Lab-grown burgers—also not meat.

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Discussion around the new Missouri law has run for several months as it passed through the state’s legislature. The law has big economic implications, as more companies hope to offer slaughter-less meat substitutes, such as plant-based foods or products grown from cells in the lab. Even the Food and Drug Administration has gotten involved in the conversation. Folks from the meat-substitute industry are naturally angry.

“This is just the meat industry nakedly trying to fight environmental progress,” Mike Selden, CEO of cellular agriculture company Finless Foods, told Gizmodo in a Twitter direct message back in April. “It’s comparable to the coal industry legislating against clean energy.”

Missouri State Senator Sandy Crawford (R) and State Representative Jeff Knight (R) introduced the Missouri Senate and House bills this past winter. The bill, signed into law back in June, makes it illegal to refer to anything that doesn’t meet the state’s definition of livestock and poultry as “meat.” Those breaking the law could be subject to fines and imprisonment, reports USA Today. The new rule goes into effect today.

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The law is motivated by a consumer group, namely the Missouri Cattleman’s Association. One of their spokespeople told USA Today that they wanted consumers to know “what they’re getting.”

This is a long-debated issue. You might have heard of recent discussions or introduced bills attempting to tighten the definition of animal-based words like “dairy” and “meat” in order to exclude products targeted toward consumers who want meat and milk alternatives. Those include soy milk or the Impossible Burger, and products from cultured cells like those offered by Perfect Day, Finless Foods, Memphis Meats, and Just (formerly called Hampton Creek). Naturally, these companies want their products available in the meat aisle for consumers who might pick a slaughterless option given the choice.

While you might agree that plant-based options aren’t meat, it seems difficult to justify how an amalgamation of animal cells brewed in a bioreactor is any less meaty than cells taken from a slaughtered carcass. For now, none of these cultured meat products are yet available to consumers.

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The legal discussion surrounding cultured meat products has made it all the way to federal government. The FDA, which oversees products grown in cell cultures, and the United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates animal agriculture, have disagreed over who should regulate these products. Just, formerly called Hampton Creek, claims its meat product will be available this year, while Memphis Meats says its cultured meat is three years away.

The alternative-meat-promoting-nonprofit the Good Food Institute as well as the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, and plant-based meat maker Tofurkey have already sued the state of Missouri to stop the new law, according to a Good Food Institute release. Their complaint charges that the law is meant only to serve the commercial interest of traditional meat companies and that it violates these newer companies’ First Amendment rights.

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So, what do you think—what is meat?