It’s Not About Steak

Aleph Farms 3-D bioprinted steak
Aleph Farms 3-D bioprinted steak
(Aleph Farms)

The world’s first 3-D-printed ribeye steak was unveiled this week by an Israeli start-up focused on cultured meat technology. Lab grown meat, much like the plant-based products that have already reached a grocery store near you, seeks to disrupt your business and steal your market share.

Many ranchers are worried, and they should be. We can argue about taste, texture, artificial ingredients and even about the “yuck” factor. Judging by the photo of the steak produced by Aleph Farms, I’d probably agree with most of your criticism.

Clinging to traditional arguments about taste and how beef is “real” food, however, is a losing strategy.

“The march of moral progress on animal rights is unmistakable.” Those are the words of Nicholas Kristof, an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner who has written an opinion column for The New York Times for 20 years. Voices like his are changing the way Americans view the sources of their food.

In a column this week, “The Ugly Secrets Behind The Costco Chicken,” Kristof writes “future generations will look back at our mistreatment of livestock and poultry with pain and bafflement. They will wonder how we in the early 21st century could have been so oblivious to the cruelties that delivered $4.99 chickens to a Costco rotisserie.”

Kristof’s column was prompted by an undercover video released by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals captured on a Nebraska farm that produces chickens for Costco. While Kristof calls the video disturbing, his views are widely shared. Proof can be found in the more than 1,500 comments – most sympathetic to the chickens – the column generated.

Animal welfare, however, is just one objection to animal ag that purveyors of fake meat claim to eliminate. The second is environmental concerns that raising cows and chickens require massive resources and create needless pollutants in the process.

Here’s how Aleph Farms – the 3-D steak company – describes itself: “The company is a pioneer in growing real meat directly from cow cells under controlled conditions, using a fraction of the resources required for raising an entire animal for meat and without antibiotics.”

Didier Toubia, Aleph Farms Co-Founder and CEO, said the 3-D bioprinting milestone “marks a major leap in fulfilling our vision of leading a global food system transition toward a more sustainable, equitable and secure world.”

Toubia’s vision is similar to those expressed by plant-based companies. Beyond Meat, for instance, has a mission statement that says: “By shifting from animal to plant-based meat, we can positively impact four growing global issues: human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources, and animal welfare.”

Taste? Flavor? … Crickets.

But really, it doesn’t take a marketing genius to realize “Tastes like chicken” or “Tastes like beef” is not going to sell a single fake patty. That’s why their sales pitch focuses on environmental and animal welfare issues.

Which doesn’t presume livestock producers can’t compete on those two issues. Maybe the better question is, “are we effectively communicating environmental or animal welfare facts about livestock production?”

For instance, a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, conducted by MRS research company for agriculture company Proagrica, showed that 39 percent of American consumers have considered going vegetarian or vegan since the pandemic began. Health concerns, climate change and animal welfare are drivers.

While no one believes 39% of Americans will become vegetarian, the important take away from that survey is that climate change and animal welfare are on their minds. It’s logical to assume, then, that many will at least experiment with fake meats if they believe claims about environmental and animal welfare issues.

The beef industry has not ignored those issues. Checkoff dollars have funded research and a life-cycle assessment that shows beef has a positive environmental story to tell. The Checkoff also funds Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) programs that promote animal care and well-being. According to research cited by the Animal Ag Alliance, the modern U.S. beef industry uses 19% less feed, 12% less water, 33% less land and has a 16% lower carbon footprint compared to beef production in the 1970’s.

The marketers of fake meats will continue to use misinformation about environmental and animal welfare issues if we let them. Learning about beef industry sustainability and communicating our industry’s successes will play an increasingly important role in how consumers perceive our products.

 

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