Fake meat makers push back

Can you tell which is the real beef patty and which is the fake? The beef industry and the fake food industry are gearing up for a fight over labels. On the one hand, the beef industry argues that labeling on plant-based "meat" alternatives is misleading and confusing to consumers. On the other, groups representing alternative proteins argue that the First Amendment allows them to call their products what they like. The patty on the left is a 1/4-lb. Beyond Burger, and the one on the right is a 1/3-lb. 80/20 ground beef patty.

A number of companies that manufacture plant-based protein are pushing back against a petition filed by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) regarding the use of terms to describe their products and package labels. Among the arguments is that implementing such a rule would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

On April 10, USCA filed Petition Number 18-01 with the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service to exclude products not derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered from the definition of “beef” and “meat.” A number of beef industry and other agricultural organizations have filed comments in general support of the petition. However, the companies producing plant-based proteins have other opinions.

On April 17, leaders of eight organizations and companies signed a joint response asking USDA to reject USCA’s petition. Those groups include The Global Food Institute, Field Roast Grain Meat Co., Finless Foods, Hungry Planet, Impossible Foods, Light Life Foods, Sweet Earth Enlightened Foods, and The Tofurky Company (the coalition).

In its petition, USCA argues that the increasing number of synthetic and lab-grown products will compete against actual beef products that are raised and harvested in a traditional manner. The coalition wrote in their comments that USDA does not have the authority to grant the request, saying that “USDA should reject this invitation to create new labeling conventions that favor one method of meat production over another.” It further said that USCA’s proposal asks the agency to “abuse its authority, act in contradiction to settled and well considered policy precedents, violate the First Amendment, and adopt an approach that would lead to absurd results.”

The coalition also argues that USDA cannot grant the petition request because it lacks authority over the labeling of plant-based products. Paraphasing USDA’s definition of meat as food coming from the carcass of cattle, sheep swine or goats, the opposition claims that because plant-based foods do not fall within this definition, the Food and Drug Administration has labeling authority, not USDA.

USCA’s petition was filed in February and the original comment period ended in early April. But following a request by the North American Meat Institute, the deadline was extended to May 17. To view the petition and submit comments online, go to www.regulations.gov and search for Docket Number FSIS-2018-0016-0001.

As of May 2, more than 40 comments had been submitted, mostly in favor of USCA’s petition.

Missouri responds

In response to the growing meat alternatives, lawmakers in Missouri are taking action to protect livestock producers. State Sen. Sandy Crawford (R-28) and Rep. Jeff Knight (R-129) have introduced legislation in their respective chambers to prohibit misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from traditionally harvested livestock. Crawford’s SB 977 and Knight’s HB607 contain language prohibiting misleading or deceptive practices including “…misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production of livestock or poultry.”

Crawford told WLJ that many agricultural groups have testified in favor of her bill.

Knight said the legislation is important because “Misrepresentation would hurt our farmers who, through the checkoff system, actually pay for their own marketing. The milk industry has been hurt by a product that is called milk and marketed as such, and it is nothing more than a juice.” He went on, “These companies are using the word meat, beef, chicken and more on their packaging, and some have pictures and silhouettes of chickens and steers on the package. They are going after meat eaters, not someone looking for an alternative. Alternatives are needed, but not at the expense of our farmers.”

Like Crawford, Knight said he received support from cattle and agricultural groups, including soybean producers. And, while both measures advanced easily from their respective committees to full floor consideration, there may be a fight ahead.

Knight told WLJ, “There wasn’t opposition in committee until now and the bill has gotten out. Makers of the alternatives and [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] and [Humane Society of the U.S.] are now opposed.”

Noting that Missouri’s legislative session ends May 18, Crawford said it is hard to predict what may happen, but she remains hopeful that the bills will pass. — Rae Price, WLJ editor

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