When Burger King started a trial on Impossible Foods’ plant-based version of the Whopper earlier this year in 59 St. Louis outlets, it was welcome news among the growing number of people trying to eat less meat.
Eric Bohl, a meat-industry lobbyist in Missouri, warned those working in animal agriculture that the Impossible Whopper presented them with real competition and was a “wake-up call” to the meat industry. But the innovation across plant-based companies in recent years has given people countless options for plant-based alternatives of meat and dairy long before the Impossible Whopper.
The time and investment dedicated to improving plant-based foods in recent years is testament to soaring demand. Last year, the global plant-based meat sector was valued at almost $12 billion and is expected to generate $21 billion by 2025.
But there is another, very vocal, part of the meat industry arguing that companies shouldn’t be allowed to use words that pertain to meat products, including “sausage” and “burger,” to market their products to consumers.
State governments across the U.S. are trying to hinder companies’ freedom to use certain words to describe their products. Missouri initiated the trend when it enacted a law in August last year making it illegal to “misrepresent” a product by describing it as meat if it isn’t “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”
And now, more than a dozen states, including North Dakota and Montana, have introduced similar bills, and Tennessee, Virginia, Nebraska and Wyoming are considering similar ones.
Critics say this tidal wave of censorship has been pushed forward by lobbying from the animal-agriculture industry, which argues that “meat is meat.” The main argument for this pushback of plant-based companies describing their products as burgers and milks is that these words confuse consumers, and make it unclear whether a product contains meat or dairy.
However, there is no evidence that people are confused by plant-based labels, which courts have repeatedly affirmed. One judge dismissed such a case on the grounds that it “stretches the bounds of credulity” because by the same logic, “a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.” The reality is that plant-based meat and dairy products are easily identifiable by their labels, ingredients and packaging — while meat and dairy products are equally as recognizable.
And policing laws around food names enters into a huge gray area; “meat” is commonly used to describe the soft flesh on the inside of a coconut, for example, while “milk” describes its liquid. The conflict also brings up questions about what meat really is, and whether it’s more of an experience or a taste, which plant-based companies have worked hard to replicate.
The other argument is that taking these words away from plant-based companies protects the reputation of meat products. But research showing how meat consumption damages our health and the planet means this reputation is already precarious, and arguably not one the meat industry should be precious about keeping to itself.
The plant-based industry has responded to these laws with concerns that they will affect sales at a time when scientists are telling us we must cut down on our meat intake to help prevent irreversible global warming. It is concerning that having labels removed from plant-based foods that have been designed to replicate meat and dairy products will make shopping more complicated for people looking to substitute their favorite foods for healthier and more environmentally friendly plant-based versions.
The laws so far set a worrying precedent for further legislation that could impede the burgeoning plant-based industry. But there is hope that shoppers looking to reduce their meat and dairy intake will be willing to go the extra mile and figure out for themselves, without the help of a label, what plant-based products are a substitute for.
Plant-based companies have been pushing the boundaries and innovating beyond expectations over the last decade, so there is no doubt it will overcome this hurdle with creative solutions, if it comes to that. The most important point to remember is that the demand for and reputation of plant-based foods has become much stronger than a few words on packaging.