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Real meat might someday get competition from lab-created substances that mimic the real thing, but for now, real meat is still far more popular. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Is 'fake meat' competition for real meat?

Maybe it's because I have two chest freezers in my house filled mostly with beef raised practically in my front yard, but I feel a little out of the loop when it comes to talk of meat-substitute products, also referred to as "fake meat" or "meat analogue."

But the terms have come up at a few events I have covered lately, showing that they are on the minds of some in the industry.

During U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's visit to Fargo on March 9, two different cattle groups brought up the issue of "fake meat" at a roundtable discussion. First Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, and then Larry Kinev, representing the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, asked Perdue to do something to make sure that artificial-meat products are neither able to call themselves meat or to disparage real meat in their marketing.

To Ellingson's comment, Perdue offered one of the most popular quips of his visit, leading to laughter and applause from the crowd: "I don't think you're going to hear anything from this administration on 'Meatless Mondays.'"

But later, when Kinev brought up a similar point on the same subject, Perdue speculated on how odd it is that some of the same people who are scared of GMOs seem to be endorsing lab-created products that mimic meat.

I don't know whether the secretary is correct that the non-GMO crowd is also on board with making meat-like substances in labs. While I have no problem with anything that has been tested and approved through established science being on the market, I don't think I'll be buying any "meat" that isn't meat.

I know the meat in my freezers is safe. My husband finishes a number of animals every year both for our family and for customers. He uses balanced rations to make sure the animals get the nutrition they need, adheres carefully to all medication withdrawal times and raises his animals humanely. I believe the same can be said about ranches, feedlots and animal agriculture ventures across the nation.

I also know the meat in my freezers is delicious. Tender. Juicy. Flavorful.

At the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line conference in Bismarck in late February, an audience member asked North Dakota State University livestock economist Tim Petry whether "fake meat" could have an effect on livestock markets. Petry said the products so far are expensive and more likely to mimic a chicken nugget than a good steak, so they're not much of a threat. Though it might be possible someday that lab-created, meat-like products could be mistaken for the real thing, they're not there yet.

The target audience for such products likely doesn't include people like me, who were raised on fresh, local beef; the targets very well might be people who never would walk over to the meat counter in the first place — vegetarians, vegans, etc. Some "fake meat" products are made from plant-based materials, while other efforts use animal cells in production. Since I have never considered any philosophies of not eating meat, I don't know which would be more popular.

Here are my thoughts:

Let the labs make their products. Those of us who like a good steak aren't going to sway from the real thing. Those who would rather eat a lab-created slab of something should be able to have their way, too.

But, companies need to come up with something to call their products without using "meat," "beef," "pork," "chicken," "turkey," "lamb" or other words associated with real meat in their marketing. There should be no confusion between real meat and an artificially created substance.

That seems like it should be well within the authority of government entities, but, as the dairy industry and its battle against plant-based "milk" can attest, it likely won't be as easy as it should be.

So, in the meantime, grab a steak, a pork chop, a roast, a package of hamburger, some chicken legs or whatever you prefer to support the people putting real meat in the freezers. If it comes down to consumers, I think real meat will be the winner in the long run.

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