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Italy’s Synthetic Food Ban Is Victory for Meat Lobbyists

Slaughters and farm lobbyists insist cultivated meat is “unnatural”. What it is, is competition.

Giorgia Meloni
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni arrives to a meeting of European leaders in Brussels, December 15, 2022 (European Council)

Europe’s refusal to allow the sale of cultivated meat is bad enough, but Italy is taking it one step further. Its right-wing government on Tuesday decided to ban the production and sale of all “synthetic foods”.

No wonder food innovators are fleeing to America, Israel and Singapore.

Only Europe is afraid

The ban isn’t unexpected. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni last year signed a petition by the farmers’ union Coldiretti against what it called “Frankenstein food”. Her agriculture minister, and brother-in-law, Francesco Lollobrigida, said:

Laboratory products do not guarantee quality, well-being and the protection of the Italian food and wine culture and tradition.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has deemed cultivated meat safe for consumption. Authorities in Israel are expected to follow soon. Singapore already permits its sale.

Europe is falling behind.

Politicians could block market access

One reason is that Europe’s approval process is lengthy and opaque.

First cultivated meat needs to be reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and it’s unclear to companies how it will make its determination. Approval could take two years and wouldn’t apply to the technology of cultivating meat, only to products submitted. So every new product would have to be reviewed separately.

Even if EFSA gives the go-ahead, European agricultural ministers could block market access. That is becoming a real possibility.

The former French agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, insisted, “Meat comes from life, not from laboratories.” The French National Assembly preemptively banned cultivated meat from its canteen.

Now Italy is banning it outright, on the same pretext: that cultivated meat isn’t “natural”.

Meat lobby has created a double standard

Neither are factory farms. Nor is the widespread and preventive use of antibiotics. Nor is selective breeding, which has created chickens so large their bones and feet can’t support their weight and cows that give twice as much milk as they did forty years ago.

Agricultural lobbies have successfully invented a double standard for cultivated meat while claiming to represent the interests of livestock farmers.

Paolo Zanetti of the Italian dairy association Assolatte told the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper that his members could face unfair competition from “investors with no scruples” who promote a product that is unnatural “under the pretext of protecting the environment.”

Investors like Bill Gates. Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general of the powerful European agricultural lobby COPA-COGECA, recently denounced the Microsoft founder as a “Western oligarch” in Rome, where he praised Italian farmers for standing up to “food tech companies”.

Gates has invested millions of dollars in synthetic food startups.

Of which there are many dozens while meat processing is highly concentrated. In most European countries, slaughter and distribution — the chain between farmer and butcher — is controlled by a few large companies.

Inalca processes and sells a third of Italian beef. The Pini Group has 20 percent of the entire Italian meat market.

How the meat lobby spreads disinformation

Firms like Inalca and Pini are the money behind agricultural lobbies such as Assolatte, Coldiretti and COPA-COGECA, which in turn fund disinformation campaigns against food innovation: Carni Sostenibili (in Italy) and Meat the Facts (in Europe).

Carni Sostenibili treats both cultivated meat (made from animal cells) and plant-based meat substitutes as “fake”, and insists they must be unhealthy. Some vegetarian meat substitutes really are less nutritious than the real thing, but cultivated meat is just meat.

Carni Sostenibili argues cultivating meat is worse for the environment, but CE Delft, a Dutch research firm, has found that it causes one-tenth the greenhouse gas emissions of traditional meat production, requires 95 percent less farmland and 78 less freshwater.

The Italian site answers the claim that cultivated meat is cruelty-free with hysteria:

Branding farmers and fishermen as a sinister breed of people devoted to the cruel treatment of animals borders on a defamation charge worthy of a class action!

Farmers didn’t choose factory farming

This is a familiar tactic of the meat industry: suggest that any criticism of the treatment of farm animals is a criticism of farmers.

Italy breeds some twelve million pigs each year, 90 percent in indoor farms where pigs have one square meter of living space, the EU legal minimum. They don’t see the light of day until they are transported to slaughter. Sows are kept in so-called gestation crates that don’t allow them to move at all.

Half a million cows were slaughtered in Italy for meat last year, most former dairy cows who expired after a life of six years on average. The natural life expectancy of cows is fifteen to twenty years.

Photographer Francesco Pistilli is known for documenting some of the abuses in Italian farms. Animal Equality Italy, a charity, has more.

It is an insult to suggest farmers want to maltreat their animals; an insult to our intelligence. Farmers didn’t choose factory farming. The companies that sell them animal feed and process their meat did. They benefit from scale. Giving animals a better life would hurt their bottom line.

Slaughters have ethical concerns

Isn’t cultivating meat cruel too? Meat the Facts thinks so, because cells must be taken from a live animal before they can be grow into meat in a bioreactor.

So the industry that slaughters millions of animals per year is concerned about the discomfort caused by taking a tissue sample?

What Meat the Facts doesn’t mention is that, unlike the hundreds of millions of chickens, cows and pigs now kept in factory farms across Europe, the few that would be needed to produce cultivated meat at the same scale could be given a good life. That is why the Dutch group RESPECTfarms is so keen on cultivated meat as an alternative business model for animal husbandry.

Meat the Facts claims to have “ethical” concerns about the use of fetal bovine serum as a growth medium for meat. This is harvested from fetuses after slaughtering pregnant cows.

Which is another remarkable criticism coming from the meat industry, which slaughters animals, including young calves separated from their mothers at birth, at an industrial scale.

It is also outdated. The Dutch company Mosa Meat has invented a synthetic alternative for fetal bovine serum.

“Italy would be left behind”

The insinuations of the meat industry are so obviously self-serving that it is hard to take them seriously, yet Italian politicians do.

Alice Ravenscroft of the Good Food Institute Europe, which lobbies for the legalization of cultivated meat, calls the Italian ban a step back for scientific progress, climate mitigation and consumer choice:

Italy would be left behind as the rest of Europe and the world progresses toward a more sustainable and secure food system.

The ban has yet to be approved by lawmakers, but that appears to be a foregone conclusion. The only major political party in Italy that supports cultivated meat is the populist-left Five Star Movement, which was voted out of office in September.