What’s In a Word


by Kayla Sargent

After the meat industry succeeded in prohibiting the words ‘meat’ or ‘beef’ on product labels of plant-based alternative proteins in several states, the “fake meat” industry is pushing back.

Mississippi was one of the first states to prohibit labels containing ‘meat’ or ‘meat product’ on any cell-cultured, plant-based, or insect-based proteins.  Passed in March, the law became effective across the state on July 1, the same day the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) and “vegan meat maker,” Upton’s Natural Company, filed suit on Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson.

The plaintiffs argue that the label restrictions are a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.  The complaint said the use of terms like “vegan burgers,” “meatless hot dogs,” “vegan bacon,” “meatless meatballs,” and “meatless steaks,” are “best-understood” by their consumers.  The ban, according to the plaintiffs, would only “create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce said the agency has a “duty and obligation to enforce the law” in order to ensure that consumers have “clear information on the meat and non-meat products they purchase.”

“A food product made of insect-protein should not be deceptively labeled as beef.  Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein.  Words mean something,” Commissioner Gipson said.

Upton’s Naturals founder Daniel Staackmann argued that the company labels “are not trying to trick consumers into buying vegan food.”  He said their use of the terms burger, bacon, and chorizo aim to inform consumers of what product the vegan alternative is intended to replace.

Mississippi’s law is not about clearing up consumer confusion, it’s about stifling competition and putting plant-based companies at a disadvantage in the marketplace,” Staackmann said.

Agricultural associations including the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association (MCA) and Mississippi Farm Bureau (MFB) supported the labeling bill in the legislature.

“This bill will protect our cattle farmers from having to compete with products not harvested from an animal,” MFB President Mike McCormick said.

The plaintiffs argued that the “powerful meat industry lobbying groups asked the Mississippi Legislature to make it more difficult for sellers of meat alternatives to compete with the meat industry.”

“The plant-based meat alternative category is on fire right now, with consumers demanding healthier and more sustainable options,” PBFA Executive Director Michele Simonsaid. “This law, along with similar laws in several other states, is the meat lobby’s response to the media attention PBFA members are receiving.  Whatever happened to free market competition?”

In an interview with Bloomberg before the suit, Commissioner Gipson, whom is also a cattle producer, said the alternative protein products do have a place in the market, but the law would ensure fair and clear labeling.  MCA Executive Director Andy Berry issued similar comments saying his organization is “not opposed to the technology.”  In a “free country,” Berry said, “you can produce and buy whatever you want.”  MCA just doesn’t want these new products to imitate the beef industry’s labels and nomenclatures.

Similar laws have been passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming.  Missouri was the first state to implement a labeling law on alternative protein products and a suit was filed there as well.  Litigation is still pending in the Missouri case.

As states take matters into their own hands, which may be followed by further litigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) have set up framework for the regulation of these emerging products on the national scene.  While a national labeling law has not been declared, the issue of labeling will fall under the FSIS —action the livestock industry backed in order to ensure label and safety standards are equivalent to those in the meat business.

Upon the emergence of these products, in February 2018 the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) filed a petition for rulemaking to FSIS to strictly define the terms ‘meat’ and ‘beef.’  The agreement between FDA and FSIS places pre-market labeling authority under FSIS although terms for the label have yet to be revealed.  The formal agreement states that both agencies will continue working together to develop a more detailed framework and “joint principles for product labeling and claims to ensure that products are labeled consistently and transparently.”

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