Boyd Meyer runs about 4,000-head of American bison on the Colorado-Wyoming border, fully aware of the speed, power and cussed nature of the 1-ton beasts.
“They can out-maneuver a horse and I’ve seen them jump a 5-foot fence flat-footed,” Meyer said. “They are not like cattle, if they don’t want to do something, they flat won’t do it and there is not much you can do about it.”
Meyer, who runs Cold Creek Buffalo Company on 27,000 acres, is also part of a vanguard of Colorado bison ranchers, slowly chewing out a niche in the American meat market. For the past two decades, they have pushed bison as a low-fat, low-cholesterol delicacy to the American palate through high-end restaurants and local grocery store chains.
“We really are getting a foothold in the American meat market,” Meyer said. “This is a remarkable animal and people are starting to develop a real taste for it.”
The bison industry’s optimism is muted by new forces in the American meat market, however. Imported water buffalo is muddying the domestic market for bison ranchers. And pure science is moving the traditional ranching industry to demand let’s-set-the-record-straight rules and laws governing the very identity of meat.
This existential meat crisis is being pressed by the stampede of plant-based meat into fast-food joints and the eventual arrival of man-made chicken breasts in grocery stores and restaurants. Cattle producers especially worry that if they don’t do something to clear the fog over meat, families will one day be savoring an All-American burger from a cow raised in Ecuador or a lab in Boulder or Berkeley, California.
“I realize lab-grown and cultured animals are being produced from a couple of cells on a petri dish,” Colorado rancher and state Rep. Rod Pelton said. “If someone wants to buy that stuff and eat it that’s fine with me.
“But the label should say exactly what people are getting.”
Pelton, a Republican from Cheyenne Wells who represents a good portion of the Eastern Plains, tried this past legislative session to shepherd a bill that would have prohibited using the word “meat” to label food that does not come from animals.
House Bill 1102 in the Colorado legislature this year also would have required labels on cultured meat to display notice of the product’s “lab-grown” or “artificially cultured” origin. The bill didn’t make it out of committee, but a resolution version did pass.
Similar legislation was approved in the Missouri legislature last year. “Other states are demanding something like this law,” Pelton said. “Ranchers and other producers are recognizing they have to protect themselves.”
What, exactly, are we talking about?
Cultured meat is meat produced by in vitro cultivation of animal cells, instead of from slaughtered animals.
The most-recognized synthetic meat product available today likely is Impossible Burger, a soy- and potato-protein based product infused with heme, made from fermented soy-plant root, to make it “bleed” like animal meat.
Made into a patty, the Impossible Burger is sold by Burger King as the Impossible Whopper for $5.95 to $7, depending on location.
Proponents say plant-based meats are easier on the environment, healthier for the human body and don’t depend on the slaughter of animals.
“We are offering an alternative to the traditional meat product and people are very interested,” said Alex Kopelyan, program director and partner with IndieBio, a biotech accelerator in San Francisco. “What many people don’t realize that the same techniques used for cultured meat have already been available for years in the form of regenerative tissue used by doctors and hospitals.”
Meanwhile, the prices for lab-grown meat are going down. A hamburger produced in a lab seven years ago cost $280,000, while now they cost about the same as a Whopper or Big Mac.
“Prices will go down as the market demands,” Kopelyan said.
Alternative meat enterprises are also drawing mainstream support and financing.
IndiBio startup Memphis Meats created the world’s first cell-based meat ball in its lab in Berkeley in 2016. The lab’s success drew $17 million from investors, including Bill Gates and agriculture giant Cargill.
Emergy Foods, which this year moved its headquarters and production facility to Boulder, over the summer gathered about $4.8 million in venture funding from groups including Trust Ventures, the fund launched with the help of billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother, David.
Emergy Foods is using mycelium, a fungi, to produce all-natural, plant-based meat alternatives with the texture of whole muscle meat. Emergy Foods CEO Tyler Hugins told the food industry website NOSH that this will lend itself to plant-based chicken breasts, pork chops and possibly fish and beef.
Emergy’s director of marketing Morgan Agho tracked Pelton’s legislation closely and said the company supports the accurate and concise labeling of its products.
“We would prefer that we are allowed to call our product a plant-based meat to best inform consumers on what it is,” Agho said. “We always try to be clear (and will do so in the future as well) that we are a plant-based meat, we do not want to mislead consumers to thinking we are a meat product.”
Pelton, the state lawmaker, said would have preferred his bill would have become law. “But a resolution is better than a dead bill,” he said.
He also wants federal lawmakers to propose a truth-in-labeling measure that would alert consumers the meat they might be buying was actually sired in a laboratory setting.
Colorado lawmakers in 2018 tried to amend the Colorado Food and Drug Act and force the state’s retailers to indicate the country of origin of the beef being sold with a sign on the meat case.
R-CALF USA, a marketing advocacy group for American farmers and ranchers, supported the measure. The group said in a social media post that consumers should be able to choose American beef over beef from Argentina, Uruguay or Mexico.
The measure eventually failed over worries that the administrative costs of implementing the law would be too high, said Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.
Fankhauser said the beef and ranching industries will continue to lobby to make beef labeling crystal clear for consumers and to debunk myths that plant-based or laboratory created foods are more nutritious than ranch-raised beef.
Last year, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association — the nation’s largest cattle industry lobby group — filed a 150-page petition asking the U.S Department of Agriculture to strictly define “meat” and “beef” as animals raised and slaughtered.
The cattle industry also takes aim at claims that most meat is contaminated during the slaughter process and that 70% to 80% of U.S. antibiotic sales go to livestock.
Beef must be inspected by a federal or state inspector before they reach the consumer. And antibiotic statistics cited by plant-based meat groups is grossly overstated, said Danni Beer, past president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.
“The alternative protein industry should not be allowed to villainize the beef cattle industry,” Beer said in a joint USDA/FDA public meeting in 2018. “U.S. beef is among the most sustainably produced beef in the world and we strive to better our cattle and beef product everyday.”
“We don’t have any problem with these new products coming on the market,” Fankhauser added. “What we do have a problem with is the marketing. Some of these companies are making claims about their products that are not true. And making claims about the beef industry that are not true.”
Alternative food companies have to be held accountable for what they are bringing to the American table, he said.
“Consumers have a right to know what they buy,” he said. “There should be no confusion about the origin of their beef.”
By buffalo, we mean bison. Not water buffalo.
The bison ranchers entered the fracas about two years ago when they learned U.S. consumers were being sold Asian water buffalo meat masquerading as wild American bison.
The water buffalo meat, labeled simply as “buffalo” by some retailers, is finding its way onto American dinner tables and into dog bowls.
The ranchers say they don’t object to water buffalo products being sold in America. That doesn’t mean Bob Dineen, founder and president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, will hide his disdain for water buffalo.
“Precooking it does kill all the contaminants in that product,” Dineen said. “But it’s not a very high-quality meat. It’s a low-end and cheap protein. It’s not considered a gourmet delicacy.”
Dineen and other bison ranchers worry the water buffalo is trampling all over the good name of the legendary, free-ranging American bison and leading to serious consequences.
“For 300 years the term buffalo has been associated with bison in the United States,” said Dave Carter, executive director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association. “And the overwhelming majority of people buying this product will believe they are purchasing bison.”
Water buffalo meat could make some consumers, or dogs, sick. Because they are considered wild game, neither bison nor water buffalo are required to undergo USDA inspection, Carter said, adding that most bison owners voluntarily have their meat inspected.
Some consumers tasting what they believe is American bison for the first time, may not like the flavor of water buffalo and will refuse to try it again, Carter said.
Carter is worried the U.S. bison industry could take a devastating hit.
“We are in a position now where our product is just being introduced on the market. And what happens if someone has a bad reaction to it?” he said. “We may not recover from that.”
There are only about 400,000 native bison in the U.S. and Canada, Carter said, while in India alone there are over 100 million water buffaloes.
Ground bison runs about $8 to $9 a pound while ground water buffalo is priced, depending on the store, about $4 cheaper per pound. Prices vary depending on the customer base, Carter said.
“In natural food stores, they have higher margins, so either ground product is likely to be costly,” he said.
Still, bison ranchers can’t compete with the volume and lower pricing of the water buffalo, Carter said.
“There are a lot of water buffalo to choose from, and it comes a lot cheaper,” Carter said. “What is happening now could just be the beginning of our problems.”
The bison association filed a complaint last year with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration against Thomas Foods International. The giant Australian meat processor with operations in the U.S. Thomas Foods was selling water buffalo from Australia labeled as “Wild Buffalo – Free Range” to American grocery stores.
There was nothing on the label indicating the meat originated in Australia, the complaint says.
Since the complaint was filed, Thomas Foods has stopped distributing water buffalo in the United States, Carter said.
“I think we raised such a ruckus, they decided to back off,” Carter said. He is sure no Colorado stores carry water buffalo.
“Our marketing team keeps track of these things pretty closely,” he said, “and we would know about it if it was being carried in Colorado”
Thomas Foods International could not be reached for comment.
Carter’s group also found water buffalo was the top ingredient in high-end dog food produced by Taste of the Wild and its brand “High Prairie Formula.” A bison is featured on the dog food package, but bison meat is the ninth ingredient listed.
Taste of the Wild also could not be reached for comment. But Alexia Heldman, veterinary affairs director for Taste of the Wild, told the weekly agricultural newspaper Capital Press in 2018 that the company began producing the “High Prairie Formula” solely with bison meat more than a decade ago.
However, the popularity of the “High Prairie Formula” required the importation of water buffalo meat from India, Heldman said. “We simply couldn’t come up with enough bison.”
She told the Capital Press the water buffalo from India was raised on pasture without antibiotics or hormones and the company was confident in the meat’s safety. Dog food companies get their products directly from ranchers and not from a distributor, Carter said.
Legal, but deceptive
The FDA told Carter last year that it does not have a specific regulation regarding the marketing of either water buffalo or bison. The agency agreed that water buffalo should be labeled as “water buffalo” and bison should be labeled as “bison” or “buffalo.”
“So what they are doing is blatantly deceptive, but it’s legal,” Carter said. “The customer is none the wiser, so the retailers say ‘Oh, why not?’”
The bison group — with the backing of the farm bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and Intertribal Buffalo Council — recently got some help from Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat.
Bennet, along with Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven from North Dakota, where there are about 20,000 bison, introduced the “Truth in Buffalo Labeling Act” in October.
The bill, if passed by Congress, would provide the FDA with the authority to prohibit water buffalo products from being marketed as “buffalo.”
“By requiring that water buffalo products be labeled accurately, our legislation will go a long way in addressing this misleading practice, provide transparency for American consumers, and safeguard the U.S. bison industry,” Bennet said in a written statement released in October.
“If this legislation passes,” Carter said, “this will be a win for ranchers and their customers.”
“Really, all we are asking for is a little honesty in meat labeling,” added Zach Riley, director of public policy and national affairs for the Colorado Farm Bureau.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at Nov. 20, 2019, at 2:12 p.m. to describe the primary ingredient in Emergy Foods’ plant-based meat products.