There’s never been a better time to cut back on meat. Over the last decade, we’ve seen alternative proteins transition from a niche product category to a whole industry in its own right. Since the much-hyped debuts of Impossible Foods’ and Beyond Meat’s flagship burgers in the mid-2010s, hyperrealistic plant-based meat has become ubiquitous. They’re sold in nearly every grocery store and they’re available at fast food restaurants. They even have celebrity endorsements. Meanwhile, cell-cultured meat—meat grown from cultivated animal cells rather than slaughtered animals—is transitioning from science fiction to reality. In the past decade or so, billionaires have begun investing their fortunes in research and development at emerging companies like Upside Foods and Eat Just, and it has paid off. In 2019, the U.S. government formalized a plan for regulating cell-cultured meat, clearing the way for its path to supermarket shelves. In late 2020, a handful of diners in Singapore tasted the first-ever cultured meat served in a restaurant.
But as excitement rose, so did a wave of critiques: that our new favorite plant- and cell-cultured burgers weren’t health foods, that large swathes of customers might never adopt them, and that they weren’t even very environmentally friendly after all. Some of these criticisms are worthy of consideration, and they’ve provided a sober counterbalance to much of the hype. Others have taken a less nuanced perspective and read as though they are intentional takedowns.
Many of the health-related criticisms of plant- and cell-cultured meat seem to be exercises in scaremongering over nutritional bogeymen like GMOs, “processed” foods, and long ingredient lists. They often ignore the tangible health advantages that these alternatives have over traditional meat. Some of the environmental critiques are little more than lists of hypotheticals, rather than comprehensive comparisons of the effects of traditional vs. alternative meat on the environment. A thorough comparison would examine the effects of the products on not just climate change, but also on land use, pollution, and freshwater consumption. It is important for journalists to remain skeptical of hype and marketing claims, of course. But to responsibly inform the public, they should present the evidence for both sides of a claim.
The past few weeks have shone a light on a bigger pattern of bias at play.
Just this week, in a “puzzling” article for Bloomberg, writer Joe Fassler explored a link between cell-cultured meat and cancer that, as even he acknowledges, is baseless. The article suggests that the use of “immortalized cells” (i.e. cells that proliferate indefinitely) in meat cultivation may be a carcinogenic concern for humans. Though he doesn’t explicitly state the reason for his concern, it is presumably because cancer cells, like immortalized cells, also proliferate at a higher rate than other cells of their kind. Oddly, he states upfront that—according to leading cancer researchers—it is “essentially impossible” for the immortalized cells in alternative meat to cause cancer in humans, since they are not human cells. Yet he spends several hundred more words examining the made-up controversy further. He frames it as a matter of business forecasting—“immortalized cells” could become a PR issue for cell-cultured meat manufacturers. If anything, though, he seems to be creating a PR issue where none need exist (what Vox Editor Marina Bolotnikova called, “concern-trolling.”). As Jan Dutkiewicz, political economist and visiting fellow at Harvard Law put it: “This is the stupidest premise for an article ever: There is no proof this product is cancerous, but here’s an article about why we should maybe be scared.”
It’s fear mongering, plain and simple. Fassler practically disregards his own scientific sources to dredge up what’s essentially a farfetched claim. Cell-cultured meat company SCiFi Foods published a LinkedIn article in response. “Immortalized cells,” they explain, is not a scientific term but a shorthand to refer to “cells that can keep growing for longer than is normal for their cell type,” including most stem cells and the naturally occurring bodily cells of millennia-old trees and self-regenerating jellyfish. To speculate that ingesting immortalized cells may cause cancer simply because those cells share one characteristic of cancer cells (higher-than-normal proliferation) is illogical. Doing so in a public forum is also irresponsible…but it sure does draw clicks.
Many of the academic and other expert responses to Fassler’s article, like Dutkiewicz’s tweet, have been sharply-worded and quippy. The article just doesn’t have much intellectual meat (so to speak) to engage with. Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, illustrated this point with a dry joke: “I just created a new stuffed squash recipe this weekend. But we don’t yet have years of evidence that it doesn’t cause cancer.” Journalist Michael Grunwald echoes this, wryly mocking the notion that a “seven-year old industry with products in zero grocery stores worldwide” should have somehow already performed reliable long-term studies. (As for me, I sarcastically pondered if Bloomberg planned to do a study investigating whether or not reading their articles causes cancer. After all, there’s no evidence that it doesn’t.)
Prominent voices are also pointing out the stunning irony of the impossible level of scrutiny placed on new, environmentally-minded products while legitimate concerns about traditional meat continuously receive a pass. There’s no evidence that cell-cultured meat will cause cancer in humans, but processed meat like deli slices, sausages, hot dogs, and bacon is known to be carcinogenic. Red meat is also recognized as a probable carcinogen by major authorities like the World Health Organization. (Even if equally silly, anyone worried about eating something that sounds kind of cancer-y would find a more salient cause for ire in cases where slaughterhouses have been accused of selling meat from animals that actually had cancer.) It’s a mystery to me why more journalists aren’t sounding the alarm about the proven health risks of products that are in virtually every grocery store, restaurant, and cafeteria in the world, but we’re hitting the panic button over a made-up issue with a food that isn’t yet available to anyone.
All of this is coming right on the heels of another poorly substantiated alt-meat piece from Bloomberg: Deena Shanker’s article on the supposed “death” of plant-based meat. The article exaggerates the recent dip in sales of products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers, characterizing a 14% drop—during an overall economic downturn—as a “plummet.” The nutritional claims in the article are grossly oversimplified, using terms like “refined” and “processed” as shorthand for “bad” or “unhealthy,” rather than defining those very general terms and engaging with the reliable, though complicated, nutritional findings that do exist. The article also underplays the numerous advantages plant-based meat has over traditional meat; it dramatically lowers water use, land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, to name just a few. Above all, it takes a startlingly myopic stance on human health, focusing on the nutritional specifics of specific kinds of burgers while ignoring the myriad ways that the entire animal industry causes illness and death among humans. The evidence just isn’t strong enough to support the case that plant-based meat has failed, or will fail. (That would require a crystal ball or psychic abilities, which, as far as we know, Shanker does not have). And without strong and balanced evidence, it’s not really a strict piece of reporting. It’s an opinion piece, and a pretty unsubstantiated one at that.
We live in a society that has often been guilty of protecting corporate and other monied interests at the expense of the public interest, which is what makes journalism so critical. Thorough and responsible reporting can speak truth to power, expose conspiracies, and pressure key decision-makers to do right by others. It should not stoke fear in order to defend the status quo. I am not saying we should shield the alt-meat industry from criticism because of how great its potential benefits are. Journalists and other public intellectuals should absolutely investigate all corporate claims and practices, whether that corporation is Impossible Foods or Tyson. (In fact, Fassler wrote a far more nuanced piece on the same topic in 2021.) The problem arises when new ideas are held up to impossible standards, scandals are created out of thin air, and there is poor science or cherry-picked financial reporting involved, all while not being soberly compared to the myriad harms of our current food production.
No industry or technology is perfect, certainly not new ones like cell-cultured and plant-based meat. Scandals and corporate subterfuge ought to be reported on whenever they arise, but journalism cannot be led by fear, click-bait, un-checked bias, or bad faith. The questions that journalists ask, and of whom, can reveal a lot about where our prejudices and loyalties lie. It’s worth looking at our society’s demand for evidence, and whether it is fairly or unfairly applied.