By Mitchell Gilburne*
Documented evidence of the environmental and ethical consequences of the Factory Farming System are manifold and yet our nation-wide appetite for animal protein will not abate. Once, the Thanksgiving Turkey and the Christmas Ham were extravagances to be grateful for. Now, we expect them to be bigger, juicier, and even more golden brown as part of our God-given right to swallow our socioeconomic anxieties.
In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood barely has to reach for an all-too-real, not-so-distance future in which our uncurbed carnivorousness pushes the boundaries of human ingenuity. She writes:
What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.
“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.
“But there aren’t any heads…”
“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
They are called “Chickienobs.” And yes, as it was surely intended, this reads at first blush as an abomination. The world of Oryx and Crake is a sterile dystopia driven by the bottom line where employment is akin to citizenship and an individual’s corporate ties are the only guarantee of security. But when asked recently at a talk in the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium which of the prophesied “advances” from the novel she most feared to be encroaching on reality, Ms. Atwood softly side-stepped the question, sharing in conspiratorial tones that perhaps the Chickienob is just what this world needs.
The possibility of cultured meat addresses nearly all of the grave misgivings that arise from an increasingly unsustainable Agricultural-Industrial Complex. The suffering and slaughter of conscious creatures could be curbed considerably. Controlled environments could eliminate the need to pump our food full of antibiotics and decrease the likelihood of food born illness. Rainforests in South America might reclaim some of the land cleared for grazing cattle. And the ozone would be spared a whole lot of methane. But can our understanding of these benefits overcome the squeamishness that arises out of the phrase “lab meat?”
In 2013, Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands served up the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. The results were a resounding “meh.” The burger was grown from pluripotent cells extracted from natural cow meat at the time of slaughter. Taste testers found the flavor and texture to be off, but Dr. Post hopes to tweak ratios of fat and protein until his lab meat can go hoof to hoof with the “real” thing. And that’s the rub; there is no question that in time we are going to be able to produce cultured meat that is indistinguishable from traditionally reared animal protein, but what will it take before they can share a shelf in American supermarkets?
People believe that they had a right to know what they are eating. And we see how the layman’s scientific uncertainty can swing towards panic with the current hand-wringing over genetically modified foods. It’s not enough for cultured meat to be the same as that derived from a butchered carcass; It has to feel the same. And that’s all in the packaging. The fight for cultured meat is the fight to call it “meat,” and food regulation did not accommodate for the current scope of human innovation in its inception.
The FDA defines meat as “The flesh of animals used as food including dressed flesh of cattle, swine, sheep or goats and other edible animals.” With the operative word being “flesh,” the FDA’s definition is broad enough to encompass cultured meat without too much of a struggle. After all, the FDA takes a relatively lenient stance on GM foods as well. As early as 2004, the FDA laid out that a tomato including genes from a fish as a natural preservative need not disclose its modification so long as the experience of eating the genetically modified tomato was indistinguishable to the consumer from the experience of eating a traditional tomato. This is exactly the attitude that the cultured meat movement is looking for.
The trouble comes in with Title 9 of the Code of Federal Regulations and Title 21 of the United States Code. The USC defines meat as “any product which is made wholly or in part from any meat or other portion of the carcass of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goat. Excepting products which contain meat or other portions of such carcasses only in a relatively small portion.” While the CFR defines red meat as “the part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats which is skeletal.” and poultry as, “anything derived from a poultry carcass.” Here, the niggling issue is the “carcass.” While it may not be too much a stretch to conceive of cultured meat as “flesh,” it strains the imagination to regard it as a carcass.
A carcass is defined simply as “the dead body of an animal.” The understanding of this word is rooted in millennia of human carnivorousness. The carcass persists in the modern imagination as the prize carried home by the hunter, the reward for the wholesome labor of the farmer. It is tangible and it is real and it connects our food back to the earth and back to the cycle of life which we are all a part of. It feels natural.
But why should we feel so bound to this narrative when we are content to hunt through shrink-wrapped gore-less portioned packets of protein along fluorescently lit aisles? What comfort is it to know that before our meat was sanitized it was slaughtered? Can we compromise on the carcass for the sake of our planet? Let’s hope so.
*Mitchell Gilburne is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.
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