Vet Ethics: Meet the meat you can eat when you’re not eating meat

You may have heard recently that France has legislated to prevent foods which are not animal-based from being labelled as meat, cheese, or milk. This new amendment to French law also prohibits using qualifiers with those words, such as vegetable sausage or soy cheese. The change was initiated by MP and cattle farmer Jean-Baptiste Moreau. Moreau was reported to have said that it is important to “combat false claims.”

The argument that consumers will be misled by such labelling is not compelling. There is widespread awareness amongst consumers that soy milk is not cow milk, and that vegetable steak does not come from animals. What appears to be fostering that kind of argument is an element of self-interest and also, perhaps, clashes in ethical and philosophical beliefs concerning the production and consumption of animal products.

An increasing number of people are reducing their meat consumption. Others, not least many millennials, are eliminating meat from their diets and becoming vegetarian and vegan. A number of major celebrities, like Ryan Gosling and Samuel L Jackson, are promoting these dietary changes. One piece of research suggests that the demand for meat alternatives will grow by 8.4 per cent between 2015 and 2020.

In addition, large amounts of money and technology are being channeled into the search for meat alternatives. Bill Gates and Richard Branson, amongst others, have invested in alternative protein research. Some large meat-industry companies, such as Tyson Foods, are also attempting to develop plant-based or other meat alternatives.

There are two main alternative meat contenders. The first is so-called in vitro or cultured meat. Other terms used to describe it include synthetic meat, lab-grown meat, and (for its supporters) clean meat. Several years ago, one group managed to produce a burger made from cultured bovine stem cells.

The patty created by this group was composed of muscle protein and cost €250,000 to make. It lacked the usual elements of fat and blood which contribute to the taste of beef. However, it is probable that scientists and technologists will be able to add such ingredients as technology improves, and that the price will continue to fall markedly.

A problematic element of this endeavor, at least for some, is the use of fetal calf serum as a growth medium for the cultured muscle cells. On the one hand, that usage appears to militate against part of the moral motive for making meat that does not kill animals. On the other hand, far fewer animals are used and killed on this approach. Furthermore, some of its supporters are attempting to find alternatives to fetal serum to serve as growth media.

The second kind of meat contender is plant-based protein. A recent and popular example of this is the Impossible Burger, developed by a Silicon Valley startup company. Impossible burgers are currently sold in over a thousand outlets in the US and Hong Kong. The company has plans to sell the burgers all over the world.

The Impossible burger is composed of wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes. But the important ingredient, says the company, is heme. Heme is important because it allegedly gives meat its distinctive taste. Heme is also found in plants. Here is what the company says:

The heme molecule in plant-based heme is atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat…We add the soy leghemoglobin gene to a yeast strain, and grow the yeast via fermentation. Then we isolate the leghemoglobin, or heme, from the yeast. We add heme to the Impossible Burger to give it the intense, meaty flavor, aroma and cooking properties of animal meat.

As in the case of cultured meat, it is possible that some people will feel that plant-based alternatives taste significantly different to animal meat. Even so, many people may enjoy meat alternatives, and their quality is likely to improve.

Moreover, there are strong ethical and cultural forces pushing the search for non-animal products. Health is one such cultural force. As more evidence emerges about the negative effects on health of red meat and processed meats, more people are rethinking their consumption of these products.

Another rising concern is for the environment. It is now becoming a more commonplace belief that animal production, especially ruminant farming, has deleterious effects on the climate and on biodiversity. Cultured meat and plant-based meat alternatives use substantially less land and water than do ruminants and do not produce as much greenhouse gas emissions.

A third concern is for animal welfare. As we saw, even though cultured meat might require bovine fetal serum, its impact on animals is comparatively low. The Australian philosophers Peter Singer and Julian Savulescu both see ethical advantages to meat alternatives. Savulescu, who is professor of practical ethics at the University of Oxford, says this:

“Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.” (Reference.)

If these meat alternatives begin to replace animal production, there will obviously be people who are left worse off, such as some farmers and veterinarians. As with other ‘disruptive’ technologies like the internet, society will then undergo some transformative changes. Will this be a good thing, all things considered?

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