- Bipartisan legislation requiring any products made to simulate beef but does not come entirely from a cow to be labeled "imitation" was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday. The legislation would also require an on-package statement saying these products do not contain and are not derived from meat.
- Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a Democrat who represents a rural part of New York, and Rep. Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas, introduced the Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully (MEAT) Act.
- The legislation and press releases from those backing the bill say having products available that simulate meat — but aren't truly meat — causes consumer confusion. "American families have a right to know what's in their food," Brindisi said in a statement by the United States Cattlemen's Association emailed to Food Dive. "Accurate labeling helps consumers make informed decisions and helps ensure families have access to a safe, abundant, affordable food supply."
As alternatives to traditional products become available — and successful — different entities are trying to set definitions of meat, dairy and even rice in order to keep these upstarts from infringing on these long-standing businesses. After all, plant-based food has a total market value of $4.5 billion, according to the Good Food Institute, and sales of plant-based meat grew 37% in the last year. Plant-based meat now represents 2% of all retail packaged meat sales, the industry group said, and is worth more than $800 million.
It was just a matter of time before some legislation on the issue appeared in Congress.
These types of proposals have already been working their way through most states, with 45 different bills on meat labeling proposed in 26 states as of August, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those bills, 17 have been enacted in 14 states.
Unsurprisingly, this newest bill was lauded by people representing the cattle and beef industry. Establishing regulations dealing with "fake meat" that prevent non-meat products from marketing themselves with meat terms is this year's top legislative priority for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. In statements supporting the legislation, many industry groups played up the potential for consumer confusion with products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat appearing on grocery shelves next to ground beef and hamburgers.
But are consumers confused? While no studies seeking to answer that question have been published, plant-based companies argue that consumers seek out their products because of their ingredient lists. And, they say, confusion is impossible. In fact, several lawsuits challenging state-based versions of these labeling laws have been filed. None are resolved, but plaintiffs say the laws restrict their free speech to call their products what makes the most sense.
The Good Food Institute, which has policy pages explaining its position against this kind of legislation, argued this is not a matter of consumer confusion.
"This bill is a bald-faced attempt to get the government to police food labels to benefit the conventional meat industry, not consumers," Policy Director Jessica Almy said in a statement emailed to Food Dive. "Demand for plant-based meats is skyrocketing in all regions of the country — including Kansas and New York. Rather than let consumers decide the winners and losers in a free marketplace, this bill attempts to stigmatize plant-based foods. ... We are confident that Congress will see this bill for what it is — unnecessary government overreach — and we do not expect it will get much traction."
Looking at plant-based dairy, another contentious industry in which alternatives have a much larger foothold, the majority of consumers know what they are buying. An online survey last year from the International Food Information Council showed about three-fourths of consumers knew plant-based milk does not contain any actual dairy. And, according to an analysis of comments about dairy labeling to the FDA commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association, 76% support using dairy terminology on plant-based products.
Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown told Food Dive earlier this month that while this kind of legislation is directly targeting his industry, it shows where the trends are going. "It's a very good sign that the incumbent industry realizes that they're seeing that their future is questionable and they're getting a little desperate," Brown said.
While this meat-labeling bill appears to be quite sweeping, it currently neglects many products in the plant-based space. It focuses just on plant-based beef — though cultured beef, which does not exist in the market right now, would also be targeted because it is not harvested from a cow. Alternative chicken, pork and seafood are left out, meaning if this legislation were to pass, plant-based chicken nuggets or tuna would not have to be labeled "imitation." While Beyond Meat's burgers would have to change their labeling strategies, the company's Beyond Sausage could stay the same because it emulates pork.
But a bill is just a proposal. It means very little unless it is enacted. As of Tuesday morning, the bill had not yet been assigned to committees and it was unclear if it would attract co-sponsors. A bipartisan bill on any topic could certainly be attractive to many in Congress, but setting regulatory definitions for beef is likely not an agenda priority for either political party right now as they remain embroiled in other national issues.
Regardless, this legislation offers the chance for the federal government to set nationwide policy on the issue, which could put an end to state-by-state controversy and litigation. In some ways, this issue mirrors mandatory GMO labeling, which passed Congress and was signed by President Obama in 2016. At the time, Vermont had passed its own GMO labeling law, and while several manufacturers voluntarily agreed to label GMOs in their products, others would either be required to print different labels for products in different states — or stop doing business in Vermont.
The federal GMO labeling law standardized labels and provided nationwide guidelines for an issue that many consumers care about. Perhaps a bill addressing the contentious question of what can and cannot be called "meat" is what's needed to end the debate.