On the website of the meat-by-mail company Good Ranchers, potential customers learn about the company’s heritage Easter ham, and also something else: Good Ranchers’ promise that its products are “mRNA-free.”

“Avoid unknown vaccines in store-bought meat,” says the company, which advertises on “The Glenn Beck Program,” among others.

Told about the Good Ranchers’ marketing, Dr. Paul Offit, a Philadelphia pediatrician and expert in infectious diseases and vaccines, laughed.

“You just made my day,” he said. “I can’t imagine that’s what they really mean. Do they really mean they’re trying to avoid messenger RNA?”

Messenger RNA, discovered in the 1960s, is a molecule present in all living cells that instructs the body on how to make proteins. “In most cells of your body, you have about 200,000 pieces of messenger RNA converted in the cytoplasm to the enzymes and proteins necessary for life. It’s because of messenger RNA that we make insulin or hemoglobin or any other proteins that we need,” Offit said.

But the mRNA that high school students learn about in biology class has been villainized in recent years because of controversy over COVID-19 vaccines, two of which — Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — employ the technology.

Last year, two Iowa lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban the use of mRNA vaccines in the state, and in January, the surgeon general of Florida issued a similar statement.

Such concerns are dismissed as ignorance or hysteria by most medical and government officials, who see mRNA vaccines as a breakthrough, for both humans and animals.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the technology, “To trigger an immune response, many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies. Not mRNA vaccines. Instead, mRNA vaccines use mRNA created in a laboratory to teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. This immune response, which produces antibodies, is what helps protect us from getting sick from that germ in the future.”

Why are some Americans worried about mRNA?

While the CDC intended to reassure Americans about the safety of mRNA vaccines, the language “created in a laboratory” is possibly the worst choice of words in this context, given that two-thirds of Americans believe COVID-19 itself was created in a laboratory.

That, Offit said, is one of the most persistent myths that arose during the pandemic, the other being that the COVID-19 vaccine causes COVID-19. (“You could argue that the measles vaccine, which is a live, weakened form of the virus, can cause a weakened form of the disease, which rarely happens. But a single protein (used in the COVID-19 vaccine) is not going to cause the disease,” he said.)

A third of Americans go even further in their distrust of health officials, believing that the COVID-19 vaccine definitely or probably caused the death of otherwise healthy people. And for many of them, the term “mRNA” has become synonymous with bad things being foisted on an oblivious public — including our food.

In this context, Good Ranchers and other meat-by-mail businesses are not making a statement of fact in advertising “mRNA free meat” — since all mammal cells contain mRNA — but marketing their product to the small but growing number of people who distrust not just the COVID-19 vaccine, but vaccines in general.

A survey conducted last fall by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found growing shares of people who believe that vaccines cause autism and that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, in particular, cause cancer. Some people even believe that the COVID-19 vaccines could be causing highly aggressive forms of cancer that have been dubbed “turbo cancer,” although an immunology expert at Johns Hopkins has said there is “zero basis for such claims.”

There is, however, plenty of chatter on social media about the perceived threat of mRNA, and plans to use mRNA vaccines in animals in the future has given rise to speculation that if Americans won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine, their government will sneak it into our burgers and bacon. The Associated Press has issued fact checks denying that COVID-19 vaccines are in the food supply and that farmers are using mRNA vaccines in cattle. But a number of businesses are, like Good Ranchers, using their vaccine-free herds as a selling point.

Rafter W. Ranch in Simla, Colorado, for example, says on its website: “Will the unintended consequences of mRNA injections in livestock be worse than MRSA and Cdiff, the most prominent superbugs created by antibiotic resistance? Nobody knows. Nature often doesn’t issue its progress report immediately. It takes awhile. Just like it takes awhile to know whether your parenting skills yielded kids that don’t go to jail.”

The article goes on to encourage people who support Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the presidential candidate who has questioned COVID-19 vaccines, to “refuse to take their grandchildren to McDonalds.”

The ranch sells beef, chicken, lamb and eggs directly to consumers; you can even order the meat from an entire cow for just under $4,000.

Animal vaccines and ‘mystery meat’

Agriculture Department figures show that more than 90% of cattle on feedlots receive vaccinations of some kind.

Animal vaccination, in other words, is not new. But some of the concern expressed about mRNA vaccines has involved the speed with which they seemingly came on the horizon, giving oxygen to conspiracy theories.

Although scientists had been working on mRNA vaccines for years, including one for Ebola, the COVID-19 vaccine that Pfizer developed was the first to receive full FDA approval. As such, the National Institutes of Health described it as “decades in the making,” although it wasn’t perceived by many in the public that way.

Even as most medical experts consider the COVID-19 vaccinations a success, there are still many Americans who are skeptical for reasons ranging from the fact that they got vaccinated but got COVID-19 anyway, to their belief that the vaccines are sickening and killing people, ideas that have gotten traction through films such as “Shot Dead” and “Died Suddenly.”

While “Died Suddenly” is widely dismissed as positing a crackpot theory about global elites intentionally depopulating the world via COVID-19 vaccinations, its audience is not insignificant. The X account of the company that produced it has 690,000 followers and regularly criticizes mRNA vaccines and other COVID-19 containment policies. But you don’t have to buy into the wildest theories about vaccines to believe that their efficacy and side effects are worth talking about, especially as new mRNA vaccines are touted for everything from the flu to HIV — and yes, eventually for animal vaccines.

This helps to explain why some state legislators have proposed requiring disclosure of mRNA vaccination on meat labels, and mail-order businesses that offer what they say are safer and healthier products talk about the latest “mystery meat” coming to our supermarkets.

Good Ranchers did not respond to emails requesting an interview, but an article posted on its website earlier this month expressed concern about a USDA-approved vaccine called Sequivity that has been widely given to pigs since 2022 to prevent swine flu.

The article noted, correctly, that Sequivity is an RNA vaccine, not an mRNA vaccine, but then goes on to say, “The introduction of mRNA vaccines in livestock holds many unknowns, especially regarding the long-term health effects of consuming meat from vaccinated animals. The lack of comprehensive, long-term studies on the potential health impacts for consumers is a glaring gap in the narrative supporting the technology’s safety.”

But David Verhoeven, an assistant professor of vet microbiology and preventive medicine at Iowa State University, said it’s virtually impossible for even trace amounts of animal vaccines to end up in food because of USDA requirements that the substance exit an animal’s body before it is slaughtered or milked. He also said that Sequivity, produced by Merck Animal Health, has been used for nearly two years without problems and has a history that dates to 2012, when it was first developed by Harrisvaccines.

The composition of the vaccine is closer to those made with an attenuated, or weakened, virus than the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

“It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, at all,” Verhoeven said. “Sequivity has been licensed, it’s well-used, and so far, no one has turned into an mRNA monster.” Further, “Unlike COVID mRNA, which is designed to persist in the body longer than natural mRNA — through alterations to the mRNA itself or through the type of lipid shuttle used — Sequivity is designed to look and act like a natural virus vaccine and only last for a short duration.”

He said that mRNA vaccines for animals are under development, but a few years away, and wrote last year for The Conversation: “Between the mandatory vaccine withdrawal period, flash pasteurization for milk, degradation on the shelf and the cooking process for food products, there could not be any residual vaccine left for humans to consume. Even if you were to consume residual mRNA molecules, your gastrointestinal tract will rapidly degrade them.”

Good Ranchers, however, argues that there are also “significant ethical considerations” that consumers who eat animal products should consider.

“Beyond the manipulation of animal genetics, there’s an overarching question about the necessity and naturalness of such interventions,” the article on Sequivity said. “Traditional animal husbandry practices, which emphasize the welfare and natural lifecycle of livestock, stand in stark contrast to this new frontier of genetic intervention. This pivot points to a broader discussion about the kind of future we envision for food production and the role of technology within it.”