Although products like veggie burgers and sausages have been sold for years, the debate over how they can be described has become particularly contentious as plant-based products have grown more popular.
Call that veggie burger what you like, but if you’re in Missouri, don’t call it meat.
A bill that was passed in May and went into effect this past week bars companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”
But proponents of plant-based products aren’t letting this go without a fight. Four organizations sued the state of Missouri on Monday, seeking an injunction preventing the law from being enforced. That set off a legal battle in which both sides say they are looking out for baffled consumers who want to know what exactly has gone into their burger, hot dog or chicken.
The office of Missouri’s attorney general said in a statement Tuesday that “it would seek to defend the constitutionality of state statutes.”
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The four organizations that sued the state, Tofurky, the Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, accuse it of stifling competition from producers in the fast-growing industry of plant-based protein products.
Although products like veggie burgers and sausages have been sold for years, the debate over how they can be described has become particularly contentious as plant-based products have grown more popular. This has created a challenge for the traditional meat industry, prompting debates about whether something without eggs can be called mayo and whether almonds lactate. Butchers in France have even sought protection against veganism.
The value of the market for meat substitutes in the United States has grown from about $556 million in 2012 to $699 million last year, according to Euromonitor, a consumer-research company. This is still just a portion of the $29 billion processed-meat industry, but it has been growing fast enough for big food businesses to take notice. Meat processor Tyson Foods took a stake in a company that makes “meat” from soy and peas in 2016, and agribusiness company Cargill signed a joint-venture agreement with a producer of plant-based proteins earlier this year.
In Missouri, supporters of the new law argue that consumers may be confused about these new products. “Making sure that consumers knew what they were buying was the whole intent,” said Mike Deering, the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, of the state’s law. “You cannot market a station wagon as a Porsche.”
But for Jaime Athos, the chief executive of Tofurky, this is just a case of protectionism. His company has no interest in being mistaken for a traditional meat producer and has “bent over backward” to make sure that customers know that their products do not come from animals. “That’s the selling point,” Athos said.
Deering noted that the legislation had been spurred more by the development of lab-grown meat than by clearly labeled veggie burgers. “We have problems with products that piggyback on products that our families have put their blood, sweat and tears into,” Deering said, adding that the risk to his industry could be huge if there were ever a safety issue with lab-grown meats.
But the law, which carries potential fines of up to $1,000 and jail terms of up to a year, has created a pressing problem for companies like Tofurky, which are grappling with what kind of language they will be allowed to use, especially when trying to attract potential customers who aren’t die-hard vegans and aren’t sure how their plant-based hot dogs will taste.
“If we describe something as meaty, is that a problem?” Athos said. “If we compare the flavor to bacon, is that a problem?” He said he does not want to use phrases like “textured protein” without any references to familiar food. “If we’re able to say ‘soy chicken,’ they can imagine how that might fit into the recipes and food they enjoy already.”
The Food and Drug Administration already has rules to prevent companies from misleading consumers. Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, said it did not make sense to add state laws to those regulations. “Nobody is slapping meat or beef on their products without qualifying terms like plant-based,” Simon said. “It’s really a David vs. Goliath situation here.”
Supporters of the law are not convinced.
Todd Hays, who runs a hog farm in Monroe City, Missouri, that produces 13,000 pigs a year, said he is worried about consumers thinking that his industry might be tricking people.
“Once we lose the trust of consumers and they don’t believe what labels tell them, we’re on a slippery slope that we don’t want to go down,” Hays said. “Once you lose trust in an industry, it’s extremely hard to gain that back.”
These arguments are likely to continue flaring up as more companies turn to plant-based products to sate the appetites of those looking for alternatives to meat, said Ivan Wasserman, a managing partner who specializes in food labeling at the law firm Amin Talati Upadhye.
In the long term, this could push the FDA toward more regulation if more lawsuits over the use of meat-related words crop up, Wasserman said. “If there are laws saying these companies have tricked consumers, I could see some moves for the FDA at a national level to define what can be called a hot dog,” he said.
Until then, the group that has sued Missouri is still waiting for a response.
“They are threatening to throw people in jail for calling veggie burgers ‘veggie burgers,’ ” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute. “It’s Orwellian.”