Congress’ beef with plant-based companies using the word “meat”

The plant-based Impossible Burger is now on menu boards at Burger King.
The plant-based Impossible Burger is now on menu boards at Burger King.
Image: AP Photo/Ben Margot
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The biggest beef lobbying group in the United States is backing new legislation in Congress that would stop popular plant-based meat alternative companies—including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—from using the word “meat” to describe their products.

The bipartisan legislation was proposed today (Oct. 28) by House representatives Anthony Brindisi and Roger Marshall.

The legislation will be familiar to those who follow the plant-based food space—which grew 11% between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion in the US. For months, lawmakers in at least two dozen states have passed legislation barring plant-based milks and meats from using the terms “milk” or “meat” to market their products. The latest bill is an escalation, as it would impact products sold in every state in America if passed.

It’s a debate that centers around one basic question: Are consumers confused?

“A growing number of fake meat products are clearly trying to mislead consumers about what they’re trying to get them to buy,” said Jennifer Houston, the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement. “Consumers need to be protected from deceptive marketing practices, and cattle producers need to be able to compete on a fair, level playing field.”

Similarly, conventional dairy milk companies claim that allowing companies to market almond, cashew, soy, and oat milk as “milk” risks confusing consumers.

The people selling plant-based milk don’t buy that argument, and make the case that people who choose, say, oat milk, over conventional milk are making a very conscious choice—because they are lactose intolerant, to avoid fat, for taste, or simply out of curiosity. Further, they make the case that prohibiting the use of these terms infringes on their First Amendment right to free speech.

In the last several months, the naming debate has spilled into all three branches of government. Companies and interest groups have appealed to the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration to enforce or update vague rules around food labeling. Legislation has been filed in statehouses and in Congress, and lawsuits challenging those laws have been taken up by the court system.

And it isn’t just in the US. The European Union’s legislative agricultural committee on April 1 passed a measure that would prohibit the makers of vegetarian meat and dairy food alternatives from using marketing terms such as “burger,” “steak,” and “milk.”

There’s a lot at stake. The global plant-based meat market was valued at about $12 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow to around $21 billion by 2025, according to market research firm Zion.

Now that beef producers are pushing the issue into the national spotlight, it remains to be seen how lawmakers will react, and whether they’ll wade into a debate about changing attitudes toward food.