Should “Meat” Be Used to Describe Plant-Based Proteins? Missouri Doesn’t Think So

Should “Meat” Be Used to Describe Plant-Based Proteins? Missouri Doesn’t Think So

Meatless Meatballs, Just Like Beef, The Beyond Burger.  These are all common types of product names one would find in the vegan or vegetarian section of any grocery store.  But should products that do not contain animal meat be allowed to use words like ‘meat’ to help describe the plant-based proteins?  This is the question that has put the state of Missouri at the center of quite the legal dispute.  Back in August of 2018, Missouri passed a new law, first of its kind in the United States, forbidding any misrepresenting of a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.  So if the product is not derived from a cow, chicken, turkey, or any other animal with two or four feet, it cannot be labeled as meat.  Violators of this law could receive a fine up to $1,000 and spend up to a year in jail.

Approved by Missouri’s Republican-led legislature last spring, the law was initially set to go into effect in August of 2018.  However, the Missouri Department of Agriculture delayed the implementation until January 1, 2019, to allow companies a better opportunity for altering their packaging labels.  This law would apply to meat substitute products that are often soy or plant-based but still resemble a type of meat that comes from an animal.  It also pertains to a new kind of product called ‘clean’ meat, which is produced from growing and multiplying cells in a lab, cells originating from animals.

Missouri’s new law has launched an “ethical, legal, and linguistic debate” with some claiming that it attempts to “stifle the growing grocery category of plant-based meat.”  The following organizations: Tofurky, the Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are now suing the state on the basis that the law is against the United States Constitution and favors meat producers for unfair market competition.  Furthermore, they have asked a federal judge to block enforcement of the law until it is determined if it is constitutional or not.

The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association stated that the issue is all about marketing with integrity. They will not stand for meat alternatives to be marketed as something they are not.  Missouri also currently produces the third-highest amount of beef cattle in the U.S., so naturally, the state cares a lot about the future of the livestock industry and their ranchers.

The sponsor of this new legislation, Representative Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, said he hopes the law helps cattle, pork, and chicken producers who have financed marketing efforts through a self-imposed check-off system.  Knight stated, “We’ve got farmers in this state that produce the real thing.  There’s a place for fake meat in the market.  Just don’t infringe on what farmers pay for through our check-off system.”  Supporters of the law have also said that the beef industry should have protection against pejorative labels like ‘clean meat’ suggesting traditional beef products are dirty.

Amanda Howell, Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney, brought forward how the new legislation violates the constitutional right to free speech.  She added that distinguishing between plant-based meat and meat from animals is very straightforward to the everyday American.  So far, all meat-substitute supporters have said their companies have never violated regulations by the FDA or the Federal Trade Commission that prohibit the misrepresentation of food products. Backing her claims up further, she mentioned how there are zero consumer complaints on file in Missouri of shoppers confusing meat-like products with animal meat.

Those not in favor of the law believe the beef industry is threatened by imitation meat products which have increased in popularity recently with help by the media, sharing statistics on meat alternatives being better for the environment, and even better for people’s health.  Just in this new year, two big-name celebrities, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, announced a challenge to their fans to become vegans.  Jaime Athos, CEO of Tofurky, stated an option for their company could be to stop selling their products in Missouri.  However, this would be difficult because most national food companies do not deal directly with grocers.  Instead, they move their products through distribution companies that usually work across state lines.

Athos went on to say if they have to stop selling in Missouri, that would be a significant downfall they hope they do not have to face.  “I feel like ultimately it just hurts the people of Missouri.  We’re not trying to come in and fool anybody. They are looking for our products. Nobody has actually demonstrated any confusion,” stated Athos.

Taking a closer look at the Consumer Protection Law, attorney Howell stated that as long as a product’s statement of identity is “truthful and not misleading,” then it is legal.  Those in favor of the law are arguing that using the word ‘meat’ is misleading to the general public, even when it has a word like ‘vegan’ or ‘fake’ in front of it. Howell also argues that a customer would probably be more confused by terminology that did not use meat-related references.  An example for this would be calling vegan sausage ‘seasoned soy patties’ instead. She believes, just as those in favor of the law have also said, that consumers should have access to truthful information and clearly labeled foods.

Looking at the law from a linguistic standpoint, the history of the word meat in the English language has evolved.  According to linguist Carrie Gillon, the word meat used to refer to food in general. In 1300, the definition changed to mean animal flesh food.  But just because this happened, she claims that doesn’t say the word can’t also be used more generally especially as the world and its languages continue to evolve. Just as you can refer to the meat of a peach, ground tofu that mimics ground beef intentionally makes sense to be labeled using a reference that can make it easier for consumers.

Another organization in disagreement with this law is the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  Ben Williamson, PETA’s senior international media director, made the following comment to the media: “Healthy, ethical, and 100-percent humane, vegan products are a booming market, and lawmakers’ time and efforts would be better served helping transition meat producers into vegan companies.” This is quite the profound statement, especially for any cattle farm supporter in Missouri to hear, but Williamson is just trying to present a solution to a very complicated matter, which is easier said than done.  Nothing has been released to the general public as of yet with a consensus on the proposed opposition.

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