The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the definition of "beef" and "meat" to products made "from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner," according to Meat and Poultry News.
The group's request would restrict from such labeling any products "coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells."
In a separate announcement, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) said that working to keep the industry and consumers away from "fake meat and misleading labels on products that do not contain real beef" would be a major part of its 2018 policy agenda. "We're going to continue to ensure fair access to foreign markets, fight against unnecessary regulation, make sure the Farm Bill addresses our needs, and guarantee that consumers have the ability to purchase a safe, healthy, and accurately labeled protein source," Kevin Kester, incoming NCBA president, said in the statement.
Due to the growing popularity of plant-based meat alternatives from, among others, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Sweet Earth — plus the ongoing development of cell-cultured products from Memphis Meats and JUST (formerly Hampton Creek) — it was only a matter of time before the meat industry took notice.
There are several good reasons for this. According to HealthFocus data, 17% of U.S. consumers eat a predominately plant-based diet, and 60% claim to be reducing their consumption of meat-based products. Of those consumers cutting down on their intake of animal proteins, 55% say the change is permanent. This evolving consumer mindset is making major financial waves as well — in 2016, total plant-based meat sales topped $606 million.
Also of concern is that carnivores make up a large proportion of those who buy plant-based protein. For example, the makers of Beyond Burger estimate that approximately 70% of those who buy their products are meat eaters, according to an article from Food Navigator. These people are known as "flexitarians," meaning they consume beef, chicken and other animal-derived products but are cutting back on their overall meat intake. As a result, Beyond Meat reported triple-digit sales increases last year.
The impetus behind the trend toward plant-based foods varies, with some consumers interested in trying to limit cholesterol from animal products, while others are concerned about sustainability factors, environment impacts and/or more humane treatment of farmed animals.
There's also the notion of lab-grown "clean meat," which may appeal to those who prefer not to kill animals in order to enjoy a steak or a hamburger. However, the beef industry claims that the end result of developing "cultured" meat in a lab from animal tissues could be the elimination of animal agriculture, or cutting it back in a major way, potentially leaving vast amounts of grazing land idle.
U.S. consumers do have mixed feelings about their meat consumption. Most are carnivores — USDA projects an average per-capita consumption of 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, which is a record high. Nevertheless, they still would like to see a ban on slaughterhouses. A recent Oklahoma State University survey found that while more than 90% of U.S. consumers eat meat, 47% of them agreed with the statement, "I support a ban on slaughterhouses." The survey also asked whether they knew slaughterhouses were integral to meat consumption, and 73% responded that they did.
Today, the beef industry finds itself in a somewhat similar situation to the dairy industry, which is trying to stop plant-based beverages from using the term "milk." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reportedly opposed calling soy-based dairy beverages "milk" in 2011 and favored the use of "beverage" or "fortified beverage," but USDA decided the other way. The dairy industry continues to fight this battle, however, and members of Congress have sponsored bills to stop plant-based foods from being labeled with any dairy product names. However, these efforts have yet to gain any serious traction.
As further proof that plant-based meat alternatives are here to stay, several meat processors and packers have bought into such companies in the recent past. These M&A moves may appear ironic, yet they signal enthusiasm about the current popularity of the sector and optimism about its future growth.
For example, acquisitions like Nestle's deal with Sweet Earth could become more prevalent, according to Forbes, as the global meat-substitutes market is projected to hit $5.96 billion in 2020. That segment could also make up one-third of the plant-based foods market by 2050. Tyson Foods, best known for its chicken, beef and pork, entered the game last year through its 5% stake in plant-based company Beyond Meat. Canada's Maple Leaf Foods, a packaged meats provider, has also made an investment in plants. It announced late last year that it would buy vegan meat and cheese maker Field Roast Grain of Seattle, a premium maker of grain-based "meat."
While all these developments are a focus of the beef industry, efforts to limit labeling terms aren't likely to stop them. It's also possible that the beef industry could win this particular battle but still lose the war. Most consumers know the difference between "meat" from an animal and "meat" from plant-based ingredients and aren't likely to be confused on that score. And even if USDA ends up buying the industry's arguments and restricting the words permitted on packaging, chances are producers of meat alternatives will get around that by simply changing the way they label their products.