Last week, the members of the Missouri House of Representatives voted to outlaw companies selling lab-grown meat products or meat substitutes in the Show-Me State from labeling them as “meat.”
According to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the provision was added to an omnibus agriculture bill (House Committee Bill 16) that was backed by the state’s pork producers, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association.
The proposed law, sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeff Knight, mirrors a similar French regulation offered as a way to ensure that nobody confuses a box of veggie patties or “chik’n” tenders with actual beef or poultry.
Predictably, industry representatives positioned the measure as competitive fairness.
“Calling (plant-based products) meat without knowing the inspection process, the nutrient profile of these products, food safety … is a disservice to farmers, ranchers and consumers,” Andy McCorkill, a member of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, testified to legislators during a hearing on the bill. “It is important these products don’t misrepresent our industry.”
The legislation would “ensure the integrity of the meat supply” in Missouri, McCorkill reportedly said. “We care for our livestock and invest a lot of time and money in ensuring the consumer has a safe, nutritious and affordable product.”
New and Twisted Logic
That argument about product integrity, while open to debate, is well-articulated. The trade groups that have weighed in on the alt-meat labeling issue have decided that getting USDA to ban the use of the terms meat, beef, pork, or chicken on packages of plant-based analog products would be a win for the industry.
What appears to be a new development is the logic used by opponents of proposed laws, such as the one now headed to the Missouri Senate.
There are two basic arguments that spokespeople for the alt-meat sector are offering, and neither seems particularly credible.
1). The first is in response to the February petition submitted to USDA by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association’s request that the department exclude products not derived from animals from using the official definitions of beef and meat. In comments submitted by the Good Food Institute on behalf of Impossible Foods, Lightlife, Hungry Planet and the Tofurkey Company and other alt-meat manufacturers, it was stated that “USDA defines ‘meat’ as ‘[t]he part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats’ … and ‘meat food product’ as ‘food which is made wholly or in part from any meat or other portion of the carcass.’ Because plant-based products do not fall within either of these definitions, the USDA has no authority over their labeling.”
In other words, alt-meat products are not meat, by the petitioner’s own logic, so why is it a problem if USDA were to require language on packaging that clarifies that fact for consumers?
2). The second is a new twist on the counter-argument to the petition that would bar plant-based food manufacturers from co-opting animal food terminology. In a statement, Jessica Almy of the Good Food Institute said that the companies represented by the group “have a right to free speech to describe their products in a clear manner consistent with consumer expectations.”
What?? How is food labeling an issue of free speech? The First Amendment applies to personal and political speech, not to the labeling of food products, nor to descriptions of any manufactured item, for that matter.
If the Good Food Institute’s logic were to prevail, food processors could label their products however they wanted, with whatever descriptions they believed might sway consumers to purchase those products.
Such a laissez faire policy would defy common sense, not to mention create chaos in the marketplace.
The basis of both USDA’s and FDA’s food labeling regulations is to set standards of identity for the staples that people regularly purchase in order to create consumer confidence that a neutral third-party is making sure that labeling is consistent and accurate.
Here’s the irony: The companies marketing “alternatives” to conventional meat, poultry and dairy products love to demand heavy-handed regulation of inspection, labeling and food safety for mainstream producers and processors.
Why? Because the greedy corporations producing the bulk of America’s animal foods cannot be left on their own. Without the proverbial cop on the corner, so the argument goes, they would be free to scam consumers with substandard products and misleading labeling.
But the same corporations producing alt-meat products?
Apparently, it’s just fine for them to be free to create their own labeling without some big, bad federal agency clamping down on their First Amendment rights.
Logical? Of course not.
You better believe it.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.