ALEXANDRIA, Va.—There is a battle brewing on the food frontier. Cattle ranchers and their allies are pushing regulators to scrutinize faux meat-makers, recruiting scientists to test plant-based products for problems and ramping up campaigns to highlight beef’s nutritional benefits, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Over the past two years, the beef industry has pushed for legislation that limits terms like “beef” and “meat” to the kind that is exclusively raised on the hoof. Assorted labeling laws are now on the books in 12 states, with a federal bill introduced in October. However, grocerers and restaurants find that growth is coming from a new generation of meatless products that combine proteins from soy or yellow peas with potato starch, beet juice and other ingredients to closely mimic beef’s sizzle and juiciness. U.S. retail meat sales fell 0.4% in the 12 months ended in October, while sales of alternative meat grew 8%, according to market-research firm Nielsen.
In the 12 months before that, meat sales fell 0.8%, while sales of alternatives rose 21%. Still, plant-based alternatives make up just 1% of the total volume of meat sold in the U.S., reports Nielsen. Some beef producers see an existential threat in the growth of meat-alternative makers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. They point to dairy farmers’ years-long losing battle against almond, soy and other imitation milks that have captured 10% of sales, while consumption of traditional cows’ milk has declined.
“Anytime someone walks in the grocery store and makes a decision not to purchase our product and purchase another… we’ve lost a potential consumer,” said Jess Peterson, lobbyist for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and a Montana cattleman. “It’s a very small number, but it’s a number that can grow.”
Fast-food chains have raced to place meat alternatives on their menus. Burger King, White Castle and Carl’s Jr. all sell fake meat burgers, and McDonald’s has announced it will test a Beyond sandwich in several Canadian outlets. Traditional meatpackers like Tyson, Hormel and Smithfield have created their own meat mimics. Plant-based food makers say their burgers are healthier for consumers, with a fraction of the environmental impact that comes from raising cattle.
In 2018, the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington-based nonprofit that is partly funded by meat producers, began a campaign to counter consumers’ belief that meat alternatives are healthier than real meat, charging that the new products’ are heavily processed and rely on fillers and additives that contribute to obesity. Since July, it has bought ads in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, blasting meat-alternative products with slogans such as “fake meat, real chemicals.”
The FDA has jurisdiction over the labeling of plant-based products, and all foods except meat, poultry and egg products. That falls to the USDA, which has a dual role as a regulator of U.S. meat production and a promoter of U.S. food products. The FDA has permitted meat-free products to use meat terminology, like “bacon” and “beefy,” if their labels also bear identifiers like “vegan” or “plant-based.” Meat-alternative proponents say those terms give consumers an idea of their function, and that consumers buy the products because they contain no meat, rather than out of confusion.
The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association filed its petition in February, asking the USDA to exclude meat-alternative products from the agency’s definition of “meat” and “beef.” The cattlemen also targeted state legislatures, urging them to write laws to restrict how plant-based products use terminology like “meat,” “beef” and “sausage.” Missouri became the first state to pass such a law in June 2018. Supporters there said the law would stop the plant-based producers from misrepresenting their products, but the meat-alternative advocates swiftly sued on First Amendment grounds, arguing in part that the law prevents them from labeling their products in ways that consumers understand.
The legal fight over the Missouri law is ongoing. Other states, including Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota and Wyoming, have passed their own laws this year, and similar bills were debated in more than a dozen additional states, including Iowa, Nebraska and Texas.