Four animal rights organizations recently submitted a joint public comment to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) asking for less transparency into lab-grown meat.
Sometimes referred to as cell-cultured meats, lab-grown meat isn’t traditional meat from a farm animal. It’s grown in a chemical concoction that includes animal cells and a “nutritious feed” of growth agents. (You can find out more about the chemicals here.)
Lab-grown meat isn’t available commercially in the United States, but the FSIS is beginning to discuss how to properly label it. And a big question is, should there be a mandatory label disclosing that it was not produced on a farm, but grown in a factory?
In a letter to the FSIS about its label rulemaking, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and the Humane League urged the agency to allow “flexibility” in labeling for lab-grown meat. The groups argued that FSIS should “reject out of hand any irrational, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous requirements for these new cultured meat and poultry products — as such measures represent nothing more than an attempt to stifle competition and consumer choice.”
This is a false dichotomy, since no one (to our knowledge) is arguing that consumers shouldn’t eventually have the choice to buy lab-grown meat. It’s about letting consumers know they are buying it. And these activist groups apparently want to hide that.
Why? Because these groups generally oppose meat from real farm animals, and they see lab-grown meat as a product to replace conventional meat. But they’re also surely aware that most consumers are skeptical of, or grossed out by lab-grown meat. A 2014 Pew poll found 78 percent of respondents would not be willing to try lab-grown meat.
So the best hope for vegan or meat-reduction activists is that lab-grown meat doesn’t have a mandatory label, so consumers don’t know they’re eating it.
For years, these very same groups have railed against the meat industry, demanding intensive labeling that the meat was produced in a way deemed acceptable by the animal rights organizations.
Just four months before signing the letter to the FSIS calling for less transparency in lab-grown meat, the ALDF filed lawsuits in Kansas and Iowa “demanding transparency” in farming. The ADLF has also sued companies for labeling their products as “natural.” The ADLF joined the Center for Biological Diversity in filing a lawsuit over “misleading labeling” in 2016, as well.
The ASPCA certainly didn’t grant the meat industry “flexibility” when it launched its “Campaign on Protein Industry Transparency.” The ASPCA launched the campaign to provide consumers with more information about what they are eating.
“Meaningful certifications offer food businesses access to new markets, a marketing edge against competitors, and enhanced credibility with consumers. Certification programs also help consumers cut through the label clutter and make purchasing decisions that align with their values,” the ASPCA wrote.
What if one’s values are to only eat natural foods?
The ASPCA also launched an “Open the Barns” campaign in 2015 demanding more transparency into meat production. The group said the campaign would help mitigate “the dangers of a food system without transparency.”
In 2014, the Animal Welfare Institute wrote a letter to the FSIS urging the agency to “require independent third-party certification for the approval of animal welfare and environmental stewardship claims on meat and poultry products.” The organization followed up with a lawsuit on the issue in 2018.
AWI has published several guides that argue for increased label transparency. In the 2016 “Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare,” AWI stated, “Many food labels are confusing, if not downright misleading. While some food label claims have definitions controlled by the government, most do not have legal definitions. In addition, most label claims are ‘self-made’ by the company merely for marketing purposes, and the accuracy of the claims is not verified.”
In its “Label Confusion 2.0” report, AWI wrote:
“The USDA does not perform on-farm audits to determine if producers comply with the claims they wish to place on their labels. Moreover, most producers do not make their standards available to the public, and many even refuse to provide them when asked. This means label claims are only ‘transparent’ to the producers themselves, who have a financial interest in promoting their products in the most marketable manner possible.”
So when the real meat industry wants flexibility in labeling, AWI says it’s only to pursue a financial interest. When the lab-meat industry does it, it’s for “consumer choice.”
In 2020, the Humane League wrote an article praising the meat-alternative industry for being more transparent than the real meat industry. In a separate article, the organization reiterated this point, writing:
“Animal advocates should align themselves in the fight for greater transparency in the food system, not just in how animals are used for food but also in how marketers work to perpetuate demand for animal products. In addition to these efforts, researchers should work to build collaborations with independent and conscientious business partners to establish direct relationships for collecting dietary data. Lastly, we should keep an eye to technological developments that may aid our research and advocate for the development of tools well-suited to animal advocacy research.”
Now, the organization is backtracking on the idea that transparency is best.
For the animal rights movement, transparency is clearly more of a political weapon than a real principle.