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Beyond Meat is facing two legal challenges brought by individuals who say they feel misled about how much protein the company’s meat-alternative products contain. Beyond Meat denies the lawsuit claims, with a representative for the company characterizing them as “unfounded” in a statement to Bloomberg Law.
There are multiple ways to measure protein content in food. Some report the amount of protein contained in the item, others look specifically at how digestible that protein is to the human body, sometimes referred to as the protein quality. The plaintiffs in these cases argue that, because Beyond Meat puts statements on the front of its product packages advertising protein – rather than just listing the standard nutrition facts on the back – the company is obligated to apply the stricter standard.
“By advertising protein content on the Beyond Meat Products’ front label, Defendant misleads consumers into believing that they stand to benefit from the Products’ stated protein content,” reads a consumer class action complaint brought in Illinois. “Defendant has engaged in unfair and/or deceptive business practices by intentionally misrepresenting the nature and quality of Beyond Meat Products on the Products’ respective nutrition labels and by failing to follow federal regulations that set forth the appropriate testing methodologies for determining protein content. Defendant has been unjustly enriched as a result of these and related practices.”
It’s their contention that FDA regulations require Beyond Meat to use what’s known as the Protein Digestibility Amino Acid Corrected Score calculation rather than the more typical Nitrogen Content Method because, according to the complaint, “the regulation requires that for any product making a protein claim (which is contained on the front panel of all of the Products), the product must contain a statement of protein content as a percentage of the Daily Reference Value”
The plaintiffs sent out Beyond Meat products for their own lab testing using the PDAACS calculation and include a table of results in the complaint. Most of the differences in absolute protein content are only off by a gram or two from what Beyond Meat’s packages state – some of the results actually show more protein than advertised – but the numbers in the “percent daily value,” a reference to protein quality, differ. The biggest difference is in the plant-based burger patties, which the plaintiffs claim contain only seven percent of your daily protein needs, not the 40 percent that Beyond asserts.
Amanda Howell, a senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund who has previously worked as a consumer protection attorney but is not affiliated with either party in the lawsuit, expressed some skepticism of the Illinois plaintiffs’ test results.
“The numbers in the table aren’t what you’d expect given the primary protein source in the Beyond products and the published values for those protein sources,” she says. Pea protein, the primary ingredient in Beyond products, has a quite high digestibility and quality score she says, meaning, in her understanding, the percent daily value should be higher than it appears in the table.
Where there are differences in published and observed values, they appear to mostly be within the 20 percent discrepancy margins allowed by the FDA. “That’s just something that’s normal and it’s explained by testing different samples on different days,” she explains.
The second complaint, filed by attorneys representing meat and plant-based food manufacturer Don Lee Farms following the Illinois complaint, makes very similar allegations regarding protein statements. Don Lee Farms and Beyond Meat have engaged in ongoing legal wrangling for years, beginning when Beyond terminated a supply agreement previously in place with Don Lee. In previous complaints, Don Lee Farms has accused Byeond of misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition; in August, 2021 a court dismissed the central claims in that case.
Beyond Meat has emphatically denies doing anything inappropriate. “The allegations in the filing are unfounded and not representative of Beyond Meat’s products,” a spokesperson stated. “We are prepared to vigorously fight this case.”
While plaintiffs assert they purchased these products expressly because of the promised protein, attorney Howell points out that is only one reason shoppers might buy Beyond.
“Consumers are choosing Beyond and other plant-based meat products for a number of reasons. Those reasons include animal welfare, environmental concerns, sustainability concerns, public health concerns,” she says. “Even if you limited the scope of the reasons consumers are choosing Beyond Meat for health, I would still say that these products are objectively healthier [than animal-based meat].”