- Fewer than half of consumers understand that "plant-based beef" is entirely vegan, according to a study from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The survey of more than 1,800 consumers, which represented a variety of ages, regions and genders, found 45% believed plant-based beef is vegan. Just over three in 10 thought it could contain animal byproducts, while 17% thought it could have small amounts of meat, and 7% said these items contain meat and there are no restrictions on the amount.
- Survey participants said plant-based meat causes less environmental harm (52%), is healthier (51%) and lower in sodium (44%) than conventional meat. They responded that conventional meat was better for their budgets (46%), is a better source of protein (42%) and has fewer ingredients (42%).
- Participants were shown several packages and marketing campaigns for leading plant-based meat brands. Beyond Meat's packaging for burgers and meat confused many respondents, an average of 59% of whom thought the product contained meat — especially given the cow on the company's logo and wording like "beef" and "even meatier." More than six in 10 didn't think that LightLife Gimme Lean Plant Based Ground Beef was vegan. They cited the packaging, which is like conventional meat, and the word "beef" on the label.
In the war over the term "meat," the plant-based sector has recently had a streak of wins — but this study could slow the sector's success.
Meat industry defenders have long said that plant-based products cause consumer confusion. And this study released by the NCBA gives them something to back up that claim.
“The fact that so many consumers look at these labels and think that the products include meat or other animal by-products is a clear sign that the misleading labeling and deceptive marketing practices of plant-based fake meat companies has caused real consumer confusion,” Jennifer Houston, NCBA President's president, said in a press release. “Many of these fake-meat products purposely use graphics and words that trade on beef’s good name, and it needs to stop immediately. Consumers rely on names and product packaging to inform their purchasing decisions, and they have a right to know that this information is accurate and not misleading.”
Many different groups have said these label claims are misleading and taken it to their statehouses. States including Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming passed laws in 2019 that would outlaw the term "meat" on anything that did not come from a slaughtered animal. Lawsuits seeking to overturn the legislation were filed in Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri.
Mississippi's lawsuit was dismissed in November after both sides worked together to clarify how products were to be labeled. In Arkansas, the judge granted a preliminary injunction, meaning the law cannot be enforced, in December. The Missouri lawsuit is still pending, though in December judges ruled against granting an injunction and pausing enforcement of the law as it continues.
In a previous interview with Food Dive, Danielle Beck, the NCBA's head of government affairs, talked about the "sincere confusion in the marketplace." She said the nutritional superiority and health benefits of beef are clear.
"The beef industry is working hard to continue communicating the benefits of beef," Beck told Food Dive. "Consumers love beef. It's safe. It's affordable. It's nutritious. It's an authentic source of high-quality protein and ... 10 essential nutrients that are ... important for good health."
But plant-based advocates have long said there is no confusion among consumers when they are looking at plant-based meat products.
"Consumers are buying these alternatives specifically because they're not derived from an animal, so that's why companies are using clear qualifiers to make sure that they stand out in the marketplace to reach the consumer who's looking for that type of option," Plant Based Foods Association Executive Director Michele Simon said in a previous interview with Food Dive.
With proof from the meat industry that there is confusion among consumers who may not be specifically trying to buy plant-based options — as well as those who are — those backing label changes have a strong argument behind them. It may help bolster the case for state laws that force label changes. There are eight states currently looking at legislation for new requirements on plant-based meat labeling, according to information from the Good Food Institute.
It also may lead to label reform across the board. Modifying labels and terminology may help plant-based brands better tell their stories — both as something like meat and something made from plants. The Plant Based Foods Association last year put out voluntary labeling guidelines for meat substitute products, which could help lead the way.