Across the country, state governments are cracking down on companies’ ability to use accurate words to describe their products.
Missouri started the trend last year by enacting a law that makes it illegal to “misrepresent” a product as meat if it is not “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” This year, more than a dozen states — from North Dakota to New Mexico — have introduced similar bills. This metastasizing war on plant-based proteins needs to be stopped before it hurts entrepreneurial companies, diet-conscious consumers and even the Constitution itself.
Often times these laws directly forbid alternative meat companies from using words like “meat” or “burger” at all on their packaging — even if the words are accompanied with a qualifier, such as “plant-based” meat or “veggie” burger. This means that companies such as Gardein (which makes “meatless meatballs”) and “Tofurky” could be forced to either rename their products or withdraw them from the market entirely.
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After outcry over the Missouri law ensued, the state’s Department of Agriculture issued guidance to the “Meat Inspection Program” suggesting that it would not target products with disclaimers such as “plant-based” or “veggie.” Yet this guidance is not part of the law itself and therefore not binding on the local prosecuting attorneys who would enforce the law. Some versions of these bills have also targeted cell-based meat products, even though these products are not yet commercially available and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already announced that it will be setting forth federal labeling guidelines for these products.
Even if a nut lactates, you can’t call it milk
Unfortunately, the issue goes beyond plant-based meat and even state governments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also eyeing plant-based milks to decide whether products like almond milk can be called “milk.” The current FDA definition requires milk to be “lacteal secretion” obtained by “the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” However, the agency has always understood this definition to apply only to the use of the unqualified term “milk” and not terms like “almond milk,” “soymilk,” “goat’s milk” or “sheep’s milk.” Still, the U.S. cow’s milk industry is pressuring the FDA to adopt a stricter posture.
While the FDA has yet to make a determination on the issue, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has quipped that “an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”
This statement both defies history — as variations of almond milk have existed for centuries — and the Oxford English Dictionary. After his non-lactating almond comment, Dr. Gottlieb admitted as much: “You open up a dictionary, it talks about milk coming from a lactating animal or a nut.”
Beating the meat alternatives
The war against alternative meats similarly violates linguistic traditions and dictionaries. The primary definition of meat is merely “the edible part of something as distinguished from its covering.” Common usage backs this up, as chefs have freely used terms like “nut meat” and “coconut meat” for centuries.
Ultimately, the government is poorly suited to play the role of linguist.
Alternative meat and dairy products are readily identifiable in grocery stores by clear qualifiers on their labels, not to mention the nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists required on all food items.
Consumers have become accustomed to common terms like “almond milk,” “veggie burgers” and Tofurky. There’s absolutely no evidence that shoppers are confusing those items for ones containing cow’s milk or animal meat. These vegetarian and vegan products are often explicitly made and marketed for people looking for plant-powered products, meaning the companies making them already have an clear incentive to reach these customers and make sure they can find what they want.
In fact, we’d be willing to wager that consumers would be more confused by products that use terms like “almond beverage” or “veggie disk.” And government officials have yet to grapple with the fact that once they open the Pandora’s box of renaming food products, it may never be closed again. For decades, fruit-flavored candies and cereals have pushed the boundaries of what constitutes real fruit. Even all-American staples like hotdogs and hamburgers are misnomers that are arguably more misleading than “veggie burgers.” (Don’t get us started on Girl Scout cookies or baby oil …)
Beyond tradition and basic word usage, it’s important to recognize that laws forbidding the use of certain terms directly impinge on the free speech rights of plant-based meat companies. It is, of course, already against federal law to deceive customers. Therefore, without direct evidence of real consumer confusion, these companies have a right to label and market their products as they see fit.
A wide array of groups, like ours, are stepping up to oppose this assault on common sense and constitutional rights. We both recognize a threat to commercial speech and consumer choice when we see it. It’s time more politicians recognize what’s at stake in the war against plant-based food and start fighting back.
Shoshana Weissmann is a fellow and digital media manager for the R Street Institute, a free-market think-tank based in Washington, D.C. Jessica Almy is the Director of Policy for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a better future of food.