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How Marketable Is Meat?

It seems that every other day we are pounded by one scientific study or another which warns of the danger of eating real meat.  The concerns that the growing demand for meat is putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, both through the food required for the animals and the methane gas they produce, which contributes to global warming.  Since the turn of the new century work has been ongoing on  in vitro meat in the laboratory.  In vitro meat, also known as cultured meat, victimless meat, cruelty-free meat, test-tube meat, tubesteak, or shmeat, is an animal flesh product that has never been part of a living animal.  There are still many difficulties to overcome before in vitro meat can be available in supermarkets and cultured meat is currently prohibitively expensive, but it is anticipated that the cost could be reduced to compete with conventionally obtained meat as technology evolves.

Earlier this month the first in vitro beef-burger, created by a Dutch team, was eaten at a demonstration for the press in London.  The five ounce patty made using strands of meat grown from muscle cells taken from a living cow was mixed with salt, egg powder and breadcrumbs to improve the taste, and coloured with red beetroot juice and saffron.  Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, whose lab developed the meat, says, “It is safe and has the potential to replace normal meat in the diets of millions of people.” The taster’s comments as to the flavor and texture were mixed and lacked a measurable amount of enthusiasm for the new technological delicacy.  The cost of the 5-ounce burger was estimated to be $330,000.  While it’s not much of a stretch to predict that the “new meat” will be found on super market shelves in 10 to 20 years, it is much more likely to remain there, on the shelves, given the current price point.

The project is the result of years of research which saw the scientists graduating from mouse meat, to pork and then beef. It was bankrolled by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose involvement was kept a secret until the demonstration this month.  Sergey said he got involved due to animal welfare reasons and his disgust with modern farming methods. He added: “When you see how these cows are treated, it’s not something I’m ­comfortable with.”  Really Sergey, “mouse meat”?

Whether you agree with the process or the need for a meatless meat, many challenges remain for those whose job it will ultimately be to market the products borne from a test tube in a laboratory.  After all, given that its origins are derived from animal cells, is it meat or not?  In the case of meatless burgers, or vegetable burgers, which are made primarily from soy and vegetable by-products, the problem was simple.  It’s not meat so call it anything else you like.

For those who are old enough to remember, either through personal experience or through stories told to them by members of their former generation, Hormel Foods successfully navigated around a similar dilemma in 1937.  In an era of great economic depression, making use of the whole hog (so to speak) became an art practiced by all who were committed to survival.  Spam, a canned precooked meat product made by the Hormel Foods Corporation,  listed ingredients as chopped pork shoulder meat, with ham meat added, salt, water, modified potato starch as a binder, sugar, and sodium nitrite as a preservative. Spam’s gelatinous glaze, or aspic, forms from the cooling of meat stock.  The product has become part of many jokes and urban legends about mystery meat, which has made it part of pop culture and folklore.  The heart of this debate is rooted in the term “100% meat product” when truly and honestly defined refers to anything that was originally part of the meat source, often to include parts and partials of the animal not thought be eatable before it was collected, ground-up, seasoned and disguised as something palatable.

Today, Hormel continues to navigate the marketing hazards with such creative prose as:  “After more than 75 years in the marketplace, the SPAM® family of products is still the tasty, high-quality kitchen staple the world has come to know and love. SPAM® products are fully-cooked, made of 100 percent pure pork and ham and conveniently packaged for a distinct savory and salty-sweet taste that has been enjoyed by millions for generations. The GLORIOUS SPAM® family of product’s, are great for yesterday, today and tomorrow. Give them a try and find out why.”

Perhaps, with such an accomplished mentor and predecessor to act as our example and guide, navigating the marketing landscape of in vitro beef may not be such a challenging journey after all.

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