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What Gets To Be A 'Burger'? States Restrict Labels On Plant-Based Meat

A Beyond Meat burger is displayed at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in San Francisco. The rise of meat alternatives made from plants, as well as meat grown from animal cells in labs, has sparked new laws on food labeling.
Justin Sullivan
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A Beyond Meat burger is displayed at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in San Francisco. The rise of meat alternatives made from plants, as well as meat grown from animal cells in labs, has sparked new laws on food labeling.

It's a case of animal versus vegetable — and the steaks are high.

A growing number of states have been passing laws saying that only foods made of animal flesh should be allowed to carry labels like "meat," "sausage," "jerky," "burger" or "hot dog."

Who has a beef with this deal? Makers of plant-based foods, of course — like Tofurky. But also the American Civil Liberties Union. Both are in a coalition that this week sued Arkansas, arguing that the state's new label restrictions — set to go into effect this week censor speech and play favorites with industries. Similar lawsuits are pending against Missouriand Mississippi.

Those are just three of the states that have passed laws restricting meatlike labels for vegan and vegetarian alternatives made of plants, as well as for lab-grown meat from animal cells. Others include Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming. In addition to the meat labels, Arkansasalso decreed that "rice" made of plants like cauliflower or broccoli can't be called "rice." And Louisiana has added protections for crawfish, shrimp and sugar.

Lawmakers in the European Union have made similar moves. This year, the European Parliament's agriculture committeepassed a proposal that would prevent nonmeat products from bearing labels associated with meat.

Proponents of such measures tend to argue that they want to protect consumers from being misled — for example, by rushing into a store to grab a bag of hot dogs and accidentally buying "vegan sticks."

But there's more meat to this story.

The debate over what gets to be called "beef" or "pork" is not just about quinoa burgers and tofu sausage. It's also about a future when grocery stores sell meat that looks and tastes like the real deal but is grown in a laboratory from animal cells. This future has the agricultural industry investing heavily in preparation, including the push to restrict how new meat alternatives can be marketed.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association's top 2019 policy priority is battling "false and deceptive marketing" of what the group calls simply "fake meat." The U.S. Department of Agriculture told NPR that it's still weighing the U.S. Cattlemen's Association's petition for a policy change to define "meat" and "beef" as being only products from animals raised and harvested in the traditional manner.

"You can't take a Buick, take the hood ornament off and slap a Porsche hood ornament on, and try to sell that Buick as a Porsche. It doesn't work like that," said Cody Burkham, executive vice president of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association.

In Burkham's metaphor, the beef from cattle is the Porsche — which farmers and the industry have long promoted and perfected. And the makers of "veggie logs" wish those tasted as good as real meat, the argument goes, and so they're riding beef's success by claiming its nomenclature.

"You don't have the right to mislead consumers into believing that they're buying one thing when they're actually buying something totally different," Burkham said.

Label laws were born out of a need to regulate that your bread, for example, shouldn't be made of sawdust, according to Purdue University agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.

But can meat companies now claim to be the only non-misleading purveyors of labels like "hot dog" (which includes no dog) or "hamburger" (which includes no ham) or "chicken fingers" (which, ideally, include no fingers)?

"If [plant-based makers] can't say that it's a black bean burger by using 'burger,' how are they to describe to the consumer what the product is?" said Holly Dickson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. Her group — alongside Tofurky, the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund — argues that the new Arkansas law restricting meat- and rice-related terms violates the First Amendment's freedom of speech.

"This is not a law to protect consumers. Arkansans aren't confused about what a black bean or veggie burger or tofu dog are," Dickson said. "The law is really designed to allow the government to censor truthful speech and give an advantage to animal-based manufacturers ... and disadvantage to plant-based manufacturers."

The free speech argument previously prevailed in a similar legal dispute over what constitutes "skim milk," after Florida tried to require that only skim milk that was artificially injected with more vitamin A could be labeled "skim milk." A farmer selling pasteurized skim milk sued after being told she had to label her product "imitation skim milk."

The American Farm Bureau Federation told NPR that its concern with new meat alternatives was about "claims of superiority about food products or methods of production" that may or may not be grounded in truth. And the meat groups have seen what has happened to the dairy industry, which keeps losing refrigerator space to more and more new nut- and plant-based "milks."

Americans are still buying and eating far more actual meat than plant-based meat, but sales of vegetarian and vegan alternatives are growing at a rapid clip. And according to a report last week by market research firm the NPD Group, meat eaters made up 95% of people who bought a plant-based burger at a fast-food restaurant in the last year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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