Where’s the Beef? Burgers Must Be Meat, Ranchers Say

By: - December 21, 2018 12:00 am

Tennessee Titans defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, left, and defensive end Jurrell Casey eat vegetarian cheeseburgers as part of their training diet. A new law in Missouri would prevent manufacturers from labeling the vegetable-based food as “burgers.” Teresa Walker/The Associated Press

Food labels such as “veggie burgers” and “Tofurky” prompted a new Missouri law making it illegal to stick meat-like names on products that aren’t made from meat — pitting cattlemen against vegetarians in a food fight poised to spread across the country.

The battle is heating up as new foods flood the market, from vegetarian items that emulate animal proteins to soon-to-come lab-produced meat that never saw the inside of a barn and makes ranchers fear for their livelihoods.

Even though the Missouri law is being challenged in court, a handful of other cattle-raising states, including Iowa and Montana, see it as a precedent they may want to follow.

“This is going to be an enormous issue,” said Doug Farquhar, environmental health program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The Cattlemen’s Association is pushing several state legislatures to do this, depending on the outcome” of the Missouri lawsuit.

“Missouri said if you want to call it ‘meat’ it has to be from livestock,” he said. “Nobody has a really good definition of what meat is — cell-based meat, clean meat, lab meat? The names are all over the board.”

The Missouri measure was folded into an overall agriculture bill approved by the state legislature and signed June 1 by Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, as he was on his way out the door as governor. (He resigned that day in the wake of an ethics investigation.)

The change was to take effect in August. But the Oregon-based company Tofurky and the Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute filed suit to block its implementation on First Amendment and other grounds.

The new law “is a content-based, overbroad, and vague criminal law that prevents the sharing of truthful information and impedes competition by plant-based and clean-meat companies in the marketplace,” the suit said. “The Statute does nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information.”

The group asked for the law to be thrown out. But in its response, the state attorney general’s office said the new law is not confusing to consumers and should stand. The filing said the office “has not received complaints from consumers who claim they accidentally purchased plant-based products that they believed to be meat from slaughtered animals.”

Jessica Almy, director of policy for the Good Food Institute, which promotes alternatives to meat, said labels like “veggie burger,” which are outlawed in the new statute, are not confusing.

“Consumers know exactly what they are buying because they appreciate the animal welfare or the health benefits the products offer,” she said. “Nobody owns language.”

Rather than protecting the health and well-being of consumers, she said, the labeling law was aimed at promoting the meat industry over the vegetarian industry.

But the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president, Mike Deering, countered that any true definition of “meat” must include livestock — not food products that are plant-based or grown in labs.

“This legislation didn’t change the definition of meat. It simply requires marketing with integrity,” he said in a statement. “You can’t sell a Subaru as a Corvette.”

Cattle ranchers in Iowa are following the Missouri case closely, with an eye toward either asking state regulators to strengthen enforcement of existing labeling regulations or pressing the legislature for a stronger law.

JanLee Rowlett, government and regulatory affairs manager for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, said the issue of labeling imitation meat products “is definitely an interest we have. We have a lot of cattlemen here who are really watching this issue and policy and making it a priority.”

She said her group is looking at the Iowa state law to see where it could be clarified or tightened. Protecting consumers is one priority, she said, but another is to preserve the cattle industry. “We’ve worked for generations to provide a safe, wholesome product and to protect the terms people associate with that.”

The cattlemen’s group in Montana is seeking signatures on a petition to ask the legislature to consider a similar law there. State Rep. Alan Redfield, a Republican cattle rancher, is drafting a bill that would build on an existing Montana law and include some penalties for giving meat-like names to food that isn’t meat from livestock.

“If there’s no penalty and no enforcement, anyone can do anything they want,” he said. “Our law says meat is something edible from an animal. I don’t care if you like Tofurky or not, it’s not turkey.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, France’s parliament approved a bill that bans vegetarian food from being labeled with meat or dairy-specific terms like “burger” and “milk.”

And there is precedent for state food-labeling laws leading the way for U.S. regulations. A Vermont law requiring labeling of genetically modified foods took effect in 2016, and several other states followed suit. But Congress overrode Vermont’s requirements by passing a nationwide GMO labeling law, which critics argue is weaker than the state law.

President Barack Obama signed the law, which was to take effect this year, but the Trump administration delayed implementation. The Center for Food Safety, a group that promotes organic and sustainable food production, has sued the administration over the delay.

NCSL’s Farquhar said the current fight over vegetable-based products imitating meat is just a preliminary round in a coming tussle over laboratory-created meat products, which could soon be ready for retail sale.

A recent article in Scientific American suggested that lab-created meat “is heading to your dinner table.” But the product still costs far more than ordinary meat (about $600 for a hamburger) and has yet to pass safety tests. But that’s coming, experts said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration held a joint hearing on the subject in October, where representatives of interested groups testified. In November, the two agencies released a statement saying they would jointly regulate cell-cultured food products.

The agencies were taking public comment through Dec. 26 and had not yet decided what the regulations would be.

“The technology is getting to the edge of almost being marketable and the cattlemen are terrified,” Farquhar said. “Think about it: The amount of environmental impact and cost drops to almost nothing. You don’t have to inspect this stuff because it’s hygienic. What that means for the cattle industry is that it’s zeroed out. That’s terrifying.”

For its part, the cattle industry and the states whose economies are reliant on ranchers, are working hard to make the distinction between cell-cultured meat and the original ranch-raised kind.

In Montana, Redfield is considering adding lab-grown meat to his bill and requiring different labeling for it. “The question is, is it real?” he said, describing lab-produced meat. “You worry about that affecting your bottom line.”

Danni Beer, a former U.S. Cattlemen’s Association president, said at the public hearing, “Meat is meat, and beef is bovine.” The organization, she added, “continues to oppose any use of the terms ‘beef’ or ‘meat’ on any product not harvested from livestock in the traditional manner.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.