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WORD GAMES: Lab-grown meat isn’t ‘plant based’, but is it ‘vegan’?


We’re going to have to think long and hard about what we want terms like 'vegan' and 'plant-based,' and even 'milk' and 'cheese' to mean going forward.

BRIAN KATEMAN: Language is fascinating and complicated. Just as terms like “plant-based” and “vegan” are becoming widespread, their definitions seem to be shifting and expanding… For a long time, what made something “vegan” or, interchangeably, “plant-based,” was simply not containing any animal products — no milk, meat, eggs, or other animal derivatives. Honey has always been a sort of grey area within veganism, but apart from that, things are fairly cut-and-dried. If you’re vegan for ethical reasons, animal-free whey appears to check all the boxes for ethical-food production. And yet, calling it “vegan” doesn’t feel quite right…

Emerging technologies like animal-free animal proteins are likely to complicate the conversation even further. Well-funded tech startups around the world are hustling to make cell-based — also called cultured, cell-cultured, cultivated, clean, and lab-grown — meat made by growing animal cells in a nutrient-dense medium outside the body of an animal. The idea behind these innovations, of course, is to create a delicious, perfect meat simulacrum without having to harm any living animals. Which begs the question: Is cell-based meat, then, inherently vegan?

Chances are, it’s going to depend upon who you ask, at least for a while. In one sense, yes, cell-based meat is by definition made without animal slaughter or suffering, thereby eliminating the animal welfare and likely the environmental issues with factory-farmed meat. No animals harmed, no problem. But it would be hard to justify calling… cell-based meat “plant-based,” per se. Despite our history of using the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” interchangeably, these sorts of products just simply aren’t plant-based by any stretch of the imagination. To some, calling these foods “vegan” would be absurd, not to mention confusing to shoppers. So the question is, can something be plant-based but not vegan? Or vice versa?…

All of this is even further muddled by the fact that not all cell-based meat is free from animal inputs. Many are made with fetal bovine serum, typically collected during the slaughter of pregnant cows. If even one animal has to die for it to be produced, can we really consider a product vegan? In my opinion, no. But it does certainly reduce, though not eliminate, animal suffering. Needless to say, it’s a complicated topic.

There’s one more mitigating factor: animal testing. Impossible Foods makes their meat primarily from soy and potato protein, which makes the “plant-based” label fitting. But animal rights activists have called out the company for utilizing animal testing. Because of food safety laws in the U.S. and elsewhere, animal testing is legally required in some of these cases before a food can hit shelves. So, can a burger made from peas, or milk made from fermented microorganisms, be considered “vegan” if their production relies on the exploitation of animals?

If nothing else, it’s clear that we’re going to have to think long and hard about what we want terms like “vegan” and “plant-based,” and even “milk” and “cheese” to mean going forward. Looking at the ingredient panel alone is no longer a comprehensive or accurate way to evaluate food from an ethical standpoint. Nor is reading the labels — ”vegan,” “plant-based,” “animal-free,” — an effective way to discern the actual ingredients. Food technology is evolving. This is good. Figuring out what language to use is hard, but it’s worth muddling through the messy semantics to arrive at a more sustainable, healthy, and compassionate world. SOURCE…


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