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Beef and dairy producers welcome competition from alternative products, but let's label them accordingly; our consumers deserve transparency and clarity at the grocery store. (Amanda Radke/Special to Agweek)

What is 'clean meat' and why do labels matter?

The summer grilling season is in full swing, and it's hard to beat a sizzling sirloin or juicy burger hot off the coals.

However, in the Silicon Valley, techies are working to create a "better" burger, grown in a petri dish from the cells of beef animals.

As cellular agriculture continues to grow, I've read that these cell-cultured proteins could be available on the marketplace by the end of this year. With big investors like Bill Gates, Tyson and Cargill, there will be a big push for this product to succeed, and if these marketers have their way, this petri dish protein will be called "clean meat," and frankly, I have a beef (pun intended) with that label.

For starters, calling it "clean" implies beef raised and harvested by traditional methods is somehow dirty, and that's exactly how this new product is being marketed. With lofty claims that disparage the beef industry, many of these companies developing these lab protein patties are saying their products are safer, healthier and with no risk of contaminations.

Add insult to injury, these companies are also making erroneous claims that cell cultured proteins are more sustainable. This ignores the fact that cattle grazing utilizes land unsuitable for much else and converts it into nutritious beef and beef by-products, while also protecting the topsoil and encouraging biodiversity of the land they roam.

Putting all of that aside, these marketers want their cell-cultured protein products to be sold right next to conventional beef without a label indicating that it's made in a lab! At a cellular level, they argue, this product is beef, so it doesn't need to be differentiated from regular beef in the store.

Now if that isn't a load of bull manure, I don't know what is.

Cell-cultured proteins aren't as complex as a beef burger. They simply can't duplicate and replicate the muscle tissue, adipose tissue, connective tissue, cartilage and blood vessels of a complex beef burger, and we have no idea what the implications of this might be.

So why do labels matter?

They matter because consumers deserve transparency and clarity when they shop at the meat case. As a shopper, I for sure want to know that I'm buying real beef instead of a cell-cultured protein patty. And as a beef producer, I don't want these companies tearing down my industry all while trying to steal our iconic beef brand to sell their products!

I'm not afraid of the competition. In fact, I'm pretty confident a beef burger can compete with cell-cultured proteins, black bean burgers, turkey burgers or any other patty. It's hard to beat beef, so bring it on! What I do want, however, is a distinct label, so consumers can make the call and vote with their dollars!

So what can we do about it?

It's time to pick up the phone and talk to our elected officials about the issue. We need to write to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about changing the "standard of identity" for beef to ensure that only beef raised and harvested in the traditional method is labeled as such.

While our fight is just beginning, the dairy industry's battle with labeling issues has been a long time coming. The term "milk" has been hijacked by foods like almonds, coconuts, cashews, soybeans and oats, and the now the Food and Drug Administration is reevaluating the definition of milk and if these vegan alternatives can continue to use this term to sell their products.

Whether it's beef or milk, imitation products can certainly play a role in the marketplace, and by all means, put them on the shelves to offer consumers choices, but please, let's label them clearly. Our consumers, and the nation's hardworking producers, deserve it, don't you think?

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