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You may have heard that in the past few years lots of states have been asking questions about what really gets to be called “meat.” Several are even passing labeling laws stipulating what kinds of foods can and can’t use meat-related words like “burger” and “sausage” on packaging.
But what’s really going on here? Are these laws legit? Or are they just a way for Big Ag to fight plant-based food?
The answer may depend on the specific law in question. There are nearly a dozen different laws on the books in different states regarding the labeling of plant-based meat products. Some are not particularly problematic or onerous, says Amanda Howell, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Some apply only to cell-cultured meat products (which aren’t really viable products yet) or have broad cutouts for reasonable language, like “vegan sausage.”
However, a handful of states have passed legislation that plant-based food advocates claim is more burdensome and aimed at protecting the interests of factory farmers and ranchers rather than simply informing shoppers of what they’re buying.
Take Oklahoma, for instance. The state’s Meat Consumer Protection Act requires fake meat companies to have a “disclaimer” on packaging if they use words like “burger” or “sausage” to describe their product. The disclaimer needs to be the same size and prominence on the package as the product’s name.
Setting aside the fact that a product’s “name” could refer to several different things, laws like these don’t protect consumers the way that politicians say they do, Howell argues. Though lawmakers say the point is to protect consumers from confusion and stop companies from masquerading soy protein as meat, she finds that logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
First, there are already federal laws on the books covering food, drugs, and cosmetics that prohibit companies from trying to pass off their products as something they’re not. Those laws aren’t routinely used against plant-based alternatives because the problem they address –consumer confusion – just doesn’t really exist.
“Getting these laws off the books would do absolutely nothing in terms of preventing consumers, state [attorneys general] or federal agencies from going after producers if they were actually engaged in any consumer confusion,” Howell says. “If consumers were actually confused we would have seen that in the decades these products have been on the shelves.”
Second, many have pointed out that it’s simply not in a company’s interest to pass their plant-based products off as meat or dairy-based.
“If people want to find meat, there’s an entire section of the store that’s devoted to meat,” says Jaime Athos, CEO of Tofurky. “Products like ours have required people to seek them out. They generally pay a little bit more because plant-based proteins are not subsidized the way animal proteins are.” Tofurky has joined ALDF and the Plant Based Foods Association in a lawsuit against the Oklahoma law.
“To even imagine that a plant-based company would try to deceive consumers is just absurd to me,” Athos adds. “Because we’re not at that moment in the industry. Right now it’s a selling virtue. People seek out plant-based and so we’re proud to say plant-based on our products.”
According to Howell, not using words like “burger,” “hot dog,” or “butter” could actually lead to greater confusion. If the alternative is calling things “veggie disks” or “cultured soy spread.” The real purpose of these laws is not to protect consumers, she asserts, but to protect meat producers from fair competition.
In Oklahoma, the state Cattlemen’s Association, an industry lobbying group for beef producers, brought the bill to the legislature itself. “I am always willing to help our beef producers as they toil to raise a great product for our consumers,” said Oklahoma State Representative Toni Hasenbeck in a press statement about the bill, released by the Cattlemen’s Association. Hasenbeck and her family are beef producers themselves.
In Missouri, State Senator Sandy Crawford said her state’s Cattlemen’s Association came to her with the idea for a bill that would eventually become Missouri’s alternative meat labeling law. “We wanted to protect our cattlemen in Missouri and protect our beef brand,” she stated in a 2018 interview with beef industry publication Drovers.
So far, advocacy organizations have challenged laws in five states, including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Right now, none of those laws are really being enforced, Howell says, but if things change, compliance for plant-based companies could be not only difficult but expensive, especially if companies need to make specific labels for many different states in order to comply with the law, or take down any national marketing, like ads in magazines and websites that cross state lines.
Whether lawsuits can stop the trend in its tracks, or if these plant-based meat labeling laws will really take a bite out of the growing industry, still remains up in the air.
“We have this situation where consumers are trying to do better,” Howell says. “Instead of supporting that and supporting products that have a smaller carbon footprint and are healthier for people, instead of doing that for the citizens of these states, they’re instead throwing wrenches and trying to hamstring these producers at the behest of the animal ag industry.”