BILLINGS, Mont. - What's at stake? Your steak. And the United States Cattlemen's Association is leading the way in fighting for the future of beef in the meat case.

In light of plant-based and lab-grown proteins hitting the shelves, the association has been leading the charge in ensuring that beef's reputation isn't hijacked by alternative protein companies.

These efforts were the focus of discussion at the 2018 USCA Annual Meeting & Producer Forum held in Billings, Mont., on Sept. 5-6.

In order to protect beef's reputation and take back the meat case, the cattlemen's group has petitioned the USDA to specifically define meat as "the tissue or flesh of animals that have been harvested in the traditional manner."

Currently, the definition of meat, per the Federal Meat Inspection Act, reads, "The part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats which is skeletal or which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat, and the portions of bone (in bone-in product such as T-bone or porterhouse steak), skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and that are not separated from it in the process of dressing."

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As written, this would allow lab-grown proteins to be marketed and sold as beef, without the distinction that it was cultured in a petri dish instead of produced in a pasture and feedlot. The cattlemen argue that the consumer deserves the right to know and make the choice for themselves.

Earlier this year, Montana rancher and USCA member Maggie Nutter testified to the Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C. She said, "When you hear 'Beef, It's what's for Dinner' you are hearing the marketing that millions of checkoff dollars paid for. When other products use the term meat or beef, they are taking advantage of the years of hard work the beef checkoff has put in building beef's good reputation. They are hijacking our trademark branding for the benefit of their own marketing. As ranchers, we don't want anything that isn't beef to be called beef or to use terms connected to meat."

What's more, these groups, she says are not only using beef's solid reputation with plans to take advantage of the beef producers' trade deals, but they are also slamming traditional beef production at every turn.

For example, Memphis Meats (a company with investors including Bill Gates, Tyson and Cargill) suggests on its website that their product is "better for you and better for the world."

Gates once said, "Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact. Put simply, there's no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can't ask everyone to become vegetarians. That's why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources."

Nutter says beef isn't afraid of competition at the grocery store, but these products need to be categorized as a separate product.

Speaking at the USCA meeting, Nutter said, "We aren't saying these products aren't protein or that they aren't edible, but they need their own category where they can negotiate their own trade deals, their own safety requirements and their own label. When they are allowed to use the terms 'beef' or 'meat,' they will also be able to hone in on our school lunch program and military contracts. And the way these products are manufactured and cultured using calf blood serum or plant-based serums, that changes the amino acids, and we don't know the health impacts these things could have. We need to seriously consider how meat is defined, regulated and marketed.

Nutter says the industry must find a solution before it's too late. "We are fighting a hard battle," she said.