Food and Drink Editor Lydia Waller questions the ethics behind mock-meat products

Food&Drink Online Editor, English literature student.
Images by Flickr

Last month, Tesco has released news of a new ‘bleeding’ vegan burger by ‘Beyond Meat,’ to appear on their shelves by August, alongside actual meat products. The burger itself is made entirely from plant products, such as pea protein, coconut oil and potato starch; the ‘blood’ is made from beetroot juice, to give it that meaty hue that veggie burgers are somehow ‘missing.’ Seth Goldman the CEO of ‘Beyond Meat’ has stated that these sorts of products are targeted towards the UK’s estimated 22 million flexitarians, hence their slotting in by the actual meat products on the shelves. Many other food retailers will be following suit, such as Iceland with their ‘No Chicken-Chicken,’ to appeal to the vegan-vegetarian obsession in today’s dietary rhetoric.

Yet, all this imitation of actual meat products and the essence of meat, by vegan and vegetarian brands, all appears slightly oxymoronic; if you disagree or dislike the concept of meat, why would you want to recreate it?

Why would you want the ‘meaty hue’ of blood seeping out a veggie burger if the idea of slaughtering animals for consumerism upsets you? There seems to be a few layers to this supposedly ethical dilemma in ‘mock-meat,’ yet the ‘bleeding vegan burger’ appears just a little too paradoxical to support some of these companies’ allegedly ‘ethical’ motives.

One of the most poignant developments in today’s food and science world, is the curation of ‘Cultured Meat,’ also known as ‘clean meat.’ Lab meat is meat produced by a process called in vitro cultivation, of animal cells. A man named Mark Post in 2013, created the first lab grown burger patty, without having to slaughter any animals. To give a quick run-down of the process of lab-grown meat; you start with collecting cells that have a fast rate of proliferation such as adult stem cells of mytoblasts, which either haven’t specified what they are yet or are fully developed muscle cells. The cells are then treated by adding protein to them, encouraging tissue growth, in a culture medium. To make the ‘meat’ look 3D, the cells grow on a scaffold, ideally edible, to stretch the muscle. Once this process is started, it is logically possibly to continue the production of ‘meat’ without introducing a living organism. It might make you feel uncomfortable thinking of your ‘meat’ as this stretched random bunch of cells, bred on constructed proteins and scaffolds, as opposed to pigs bred on grain in an organic field. There is a feeling of the unnatural when you hear about this process, yet does its environmental and ethical alleged benefits outweigh these feelings?

Although this may all seem glowing in ethical eaters’ reports, there are immense complications and layers to this process, which are the reasons why lab-meat has not made it to commercial sales yet. For starters, it is not intrinsically vegan, the cells do come from animals themselves and in the research process, many animal carcasses are fished around in, until they find the right type of progeniture cell. These cells are then tricked until thinking they are still in their owner, which again is innately an unnatural process, and cultivated serums typically made from animal blood to feed them protein. Again, not sounding super veggie or renaissance in reverting back to natural ways of producing foods. Additionally, these serums are very expensive, another lab-meat company from the States named ‘Finless’ stated it would cost approximately $850 to source fish serum. The nature of these serums is another set-back for these ‘clean-meats’ to go commercial, as they are not meat-free and in principle would not fit the vegan/vegetarian criteria. It also would not be economically viable. The grounds for cultured meat to substantiate a vegan and meat-free market and argument, do not appear established enough yet for us as consumers to trust them and feel as though we are genuinely buying into an ethically beneficial concept.

Other mock-meats that have been on the market for a while also include ‘Quorn,’ which mimic meat products such as bacon, ham, gammon, nuggets, steaks, sausages and burgers. As a vegetarian and occasionally vegan-based brand, it seems extremely paradoxical that their main commercial aim is to imitate meat products. Quorn itself is made from a fermented fungus that produces a dough called mycoprotein that is very high in protein and fibre. Yet the rest of many of Quorn’s products ingredients lists contain rehydrated egg, palm oil which is extremely morally questionable despite their contribution in campaigning against deforestation, potassium sorbate and other chemical ingredients which venture far away from natural produce.

It just seems baffling that a movement such as veganism, that are almost violently against the use of animal products and meat, that are campaigning a revolt back to supposedly more natural means of eating, are now cultivating a market for mock-meat and fake bleeding burgers, to almost replace the murderous aspects that plant-based diets are missing? Not every vegan will support these products and brands, which then leads to questioning of these vegan brands merely manipulating a hyper-active food market, that have identified that people, particularly the middle-upper classes, will still by into meat and are just making the transition easier for them to a meat-free diet, without having to question too much the nature of what they’re eating, if it appears like what they are used to? So then, does it matter what vegetarian food looks like as long as we are recruiting more people to plant-based diets and saving more animals? Is it then an ethical or environmental question? Do we want to desensitise people with mock meat or normalise non-flesh like protein and nutrients to encourage more meat-less diets?

It appears that ‘Beyond Meats’ strategic placing of the vegan burger by their own meat-products on the shelves, shows a consciousness of the continuing meat-market and the ease of converting a carnivorous consumer market to a meat-less diet, when it looks like what they already know. It is down to the consumer to decide whether there is any intrinsic ethics in imitating meat, when the concept of meat-eating is so ethically questionable.