• In February, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition to the USDA arguing that lab-grown meat startups should not be able to call their products “meat,” since they do not come from slaughtered animals. But this week, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) asked the USDA to regulate the startups as if they were traditional meat producers.
  • While so-called “cultured meat” products are not available in restaurants or supermarkets yet, a number of startups are attempting to make it more commercially feasible.
  • The debate will likely intensify.

For the first time, a major part of the US beef industry is taking aim at tech startups creating cultured meat – also known as lab-grown meat or clean meat – that’s grown in a lab using animal cells.

The industry is divided on how to do this, however.

In February, the US Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a 15-page petition to the USDA asking the agency to strictly define “meat” and “beef” as animals raised and slaughtered. But this week, the more-powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) sent a letter to the USDA, arguing for the opposite ruling.

Initally, the NCBA’s position may seem counterintuitive. But as Quartz notes, the move is likely part of a larger strategy to fight cultured meat startups. By putting their products under the oversight of the USDA, lab-grown meat companies would need to adhere to USDA’s existing regulations on meat, which could hamper research and development.

On the other hand, the USCA argues that lab-grown meat does not meet the definition of meat, and that labeling cultured products as "meat" will confuse consumers.

"[The government] should require that any product labeled as 'beef' come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells," the USCA wrote.

By filing an official motion, the country's ranchers are showing cultured meat startups that they are prepared to fight for that definition.

In the petition, the USCA mentions Memphis Meats, Just (formerly called Hampton Creek), and Mosa Meats, - three startups that are racing to bring lab-grown meat to market.

Recent venture capital investments could make that more commercially feasible. In January, Tyson Foods announced that it had invested in Memphis Meats, joining the startup's list of prominent backers, including Bill Gates, the food giant Cargill, and Richard Branson. In 2016, Tyson also bought a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, a company that makes plant-based burgers, chicken, and sausage.

Just could be the first to get its meat to stores. Last year, the company said it plans to do so by 2018. Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats say they will start offering their products to the public in 2021.

"We have made progress in all areas that needed improvements - creating fat tissue, creating color, moving towards serum-free culturing - but we're not there yet," Mosa Meats CEO Peter Verstrate previously told Business Insider.

Proponents of meat-mimicking foods like cultured meat and plant-based "meat" argue that it's more environmentally friendly than raising traditional livestock. Globally, traditional animal farming accounts for about 18% of greenhouse emissions, uses 47,000 square miles of land annually, and exhausts 70% of the world's water.

As startups improve their meat alternatives, the debate over what can legally be considered meat will likely continue to intensify.