An Associated Press story from London that we carried in our Aug. 6 issue informs us that scientists there are to the point of taste-testing hamburger grown in a laboratory from cattle stem cells. It sounds like something of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it’s not fiction, it’s here already. Lab-grown beef apparently gets high marks for texture, not so much for taste.
Our first thought about this is: Why? Just because we can do this sort of thing in a laboratory, does that mean we should? South Dakota ranked No. 5 (behind Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma, in that order) in the USDA’s January 2012 Cattle Inventory Report. Those five states accounted for more than half of the total value of U.S. sales of cattle and calves. Clearly we’re a key state in supplying the animals that produce meat in the more traditional way, by converting forage and feed to beef.
What is interesting to us is the term used for this new product: a “Cultured Beef Burger.” But let’s be honest – in a culture that’s uneasy about eating genetically modified foods, who would really want to eat hamburger produced in a laboratory?
We suggest the answer to “cultured beef” is the Culture of Beef – the long tradition of those who produce real food for people to eat. Cattlemen are part of a time-honored, indeed ancient, practice of raising animals – very specialized animals as cattlemen over the ages have refined their breeds – that convert grass and grain to meat. And in many families, it’s virtually an apprenticed occupation, as young sons and daughters of ranch families learn their craft from older relatives and neighbors.
It’s wise for our producers to pay attention to the reasons proponents of cultured beef give for turning to the laboratory to produce meat. From climate change to animal welfare to the space needed to raise meat animals, those are issues the industry must take seriously because those are the issues proponents of laboratory meat give as the reasons for looking to such alternatives.
But the laboratory has no history, no cowboys, no rodeo, no salebarns, no trail drives, no folk songs about riding herd. “Cultured beef” has no culture, in other words.
That is the cattleman’s edge. As R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard told us last week, not only feedlot beef, but grass-fed beef, hormone-free beef and organic beef are providing niche markets for enterprising producers who produce different kinds of beef for different target audiences. We’re willing to bet that customers in all those niche areas would rather opt for the real deal.