More States Ask, “Where’s The Beef?”

By FOCUS, a Leonine Company

A few years after “ag-gag” bills swept the nation; a new type of agriculture protection bill is now finding favor in farm-heavy state legislatures. This time, the debate boils down to a single word and how it may be used: meat.

In recent years, alternative meat products – either made entirely from plants and crafted to look and taste like real meat, or lab-grown meat products – have begun to take off. Vegetarians have rejoiced. The meat industry has not, alleging that the products have the potential to cause marketplace confusion, or worse, cut into the market-share of meat products. Farmers raising cattle, chickens, hogs or any other animal that will be sold as a meat product, naturally, do not want competition from other products, and do not want confusion over which product is the real-deal. As such, numerous states are now seeking to restrict the use of the word “meat” itself on product labeling, arguing that only products that come directly from an animal – not from a lab and not “imitation” products – should be able to bear a label with the word “meat.”

Last year, Missouri became the first state to regulate use of the word, passing a law stating that a product may not use the term meat on its packaging unless it is derived from a living animal, citing consumer confusion caused by the new products. The law proved enough to ruffle the soy-based feathers of Tofurkey, which filed suit against the state law alongside the ACLU. The case remains pending. But the law also caught the attention of many other agricultural states, also watching as meat-alternatives continued to grow in popularity.

Similar measures are pending in at least a dozen other largely midwestern and southern states. In Mississippi, SB 2922 is on the desk of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant. Whether he signs or vetoes the bill, it will likely take effect – it passed both chambers unanimously and could easily overcome a veto. In Nebraska, the bill is even being sponsored by a vegetarian, Sen. Carol Blood, citing her own confusing experiences at the supermarket.

While the stakes rise for producers of plant-based and lab-grown “meat” products, they have begun grilling the opposition for what they see as an unfair campaign aimed at curbing legitimate competition. “We think the issue of whether they use a term like meat is a proxy for this bigger issue, which is that the meat industry is concerned about competition from these products,” said Sara Sourcher, an advocate working against such labeling restrictions. The opposition so far has seen some success in out-flanking the meat industry, as bills have been killed in Nebraska and Virginia this session.

Some of the beef over this issue might, however, be for nothing. The USDA and FDA last year promised that they would weigh in on lab-grown meat, though it is unclear how broadly. While this could inform manufacturers on best-practices when it comes to labeling and marketing, it likely won’t kill off the controversy surrounding lab-grown and plant-based meats. The battle over meat labeling will undoubtedly intensify in the coming years as technology advances, more products come to market and production costs for these products continue to drop.