In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) approved the Impossible Burger, one of the first plant-based meat alternatives of its kind. The Impossible Burger gained nation wide attention for its eerie resemblance to real meat – specifically it’s blood-like color and taste. While the Impossible Burger initially faced some backlash, it opened the door for meat alternatives to become a new normal.
After the Impossible Burger’s sales proved successful, a rival brand, Beyond Meat, launched nationwide sales of their plant-based products in June of 2019. Beyond Meat offered plant-based ground beef, burger patties, and sausage. Soon thereafter fast-food chains joined the trend. In August of 2019 Burger King released The Impossible Whopper; in September of 2019 McDonald’s launched their own version of a meatless burger; and in October of 2019 Dunkin Donuts created a Beyond Sausage Sandwich. Within the last year, plant-based meat alternatives have become a mainstream, household product. Sales of these products amounted to $1.5 billion last year, a twenty-two percent increase from the year before.
Growing concern about the environmental impact of meat production is largely responsible for the growth in popularity of meat alternative products within the last year. Researchers have stressed the importance of reducing meat production and explained that “getting protein from plant sources instead of animal sources would drastically help in meeting climate targets and reduce the risk of overshooting temperature goals.” Social awareness of these issues has resulted in more Americans willing to try plant-based products. Surveys found that forty-two percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine had opted for a meat alternative at least once within the last year. Fifty-four percent of Americans ages thirty to thirty-nine had done the same as well as thirty-five percent for ages forty to fifty-four.
Part of the success of meat alternative products lies behind their marketing schemes. While the fine print of most of these products includes “plant-based”, many products still use the term “meat” for description and marketing purposes. Beef and farming industry groups have taken issue with this nomenclature. They argue that it should be illegal for meatless alternatives to market their products with the word “meat.” The National Cattleman’s Beef Association (“the Association”) claims that meat alternative brands are engaging in “false and deceptive marketing” and “clearly trying to mislead consumers about what they’re trying to get them to buy.” The Association maintains that use of the word “meat” for plant-based alternatives is unethical and puts real beef products at a disadvantage. They advocate for labeling laws that “ensure a level playing field for real beef products.”
Cattle ranchers and meat producers argue that they want to maintain control of the labeling industry and ensure that consumers understand what they are purchasing. Bill Pigott, a Republican state representative from Mississippi, draws a comparison to the dairy industry. He explains that “almonds don’t produce milk” and yet they are allowed to label their products as “milk.” Pigott says he fears that the meat industry will lose control of important nomenclature in a similar fashion, which will ultimately harm the industry.
Lobbyists and organizations like the Association have introduced legislation in twenty-four states to ban the use of the word “meat” on all plant-based alternative products. This legislation has been enacted in many states, including Montana, Missouri, Mississippi, South Dakota, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Louisiana. These state laws place severe restrictions on what types of products are allowed to use terms like “meat,” “sausage,” “jerky,” “burger,” or “hot dog.” Under this new legislation, a product can only be marketed as “meat” if it was produced from animal flesh. Any plant-based alternative cannot display this nomenclature.
While this legislation has been successfully enacted in several states, there has been significant backlash. Specifically in response to the legislation in Arkansas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Good Food Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense fund sued the state of Arkansas. They argued that this new legislation violated the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause by “improperly censoring truthful speech and creating consumer confusion in order to shore up the state’s meat and rice industries.” The lawsuit also asserts that there is no evidence of consumer confusion and “the state of Arkansas is seeking to limit access to healthier, more sustainable food choices for its constituents, and it is doing so to benefit the animal agriculture industry.” Several other states with restrictive labeling legislation are facing similar challenges.
In October of 2019, the federal government drafted their own legislation. The Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act (“the Real MEAT Act”) of 2019 was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Agriculture. This bipartisan bill aims to require any meat alternative products to be marketed as “imitation meat.” The federal bill states that “any imitation meat food product, beef, or beef product shall be deemed to be misbranded unless its label bears, in type of uniform size and prominence, the word ‘imitation’ immediately before or after the name of the food and a statement that clearly indicates the product is not derived from or does not contain meat.”
Specifically, the Real MEAT Act draws a hard line between the nomenclature used for actual meat products and plant-based alternatives. The bill defines beef products as “any product containing edible meat tissue harvested in whole form from domesticated Bos indicus or Bos taurus cattle.” In contrast, imitation meat food products are defined as “any product manufactured to appear as a meat food product or any food product which approximates the aesthetic qualities (primarily texture, flavor, and appearance) and/or chemical characteristics of specific types of meat but does not contain any meat, meat food product, or meat byproduct ingredients.”
The Real MEAT Act has not passed the House yet and was referred to the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture after facing harsh criticism. The executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, an organization advocating for the benefits of meat alternatives, argues that the Real MEAT Act is trying to fix a problem that does not exist. She explains, “no one is trying to trick consumers into thinking they are buying meat from animals.” Other organizations maintain that the value in plant-based products is the very fact that they lack meat, thus the producers of plant-based products are not aiming to confuse consumers.
It is currently unclear how the House will vote on the Real MEAT Act. However, without a federal bill, individual state legislation will continue to govern how plant-based alternatives are marketed and consumed. Until the federal government steps in, this debate will differ across state lines but how Americans consume “meat” will continue to change.
Suggested Citation: Nicole Jaeckel, Marketing Meat Alternatives: Does Nomenclature Matter?, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Mar. 27, 2020), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/marketing-meat-alternatives-does-nomenclature-matter/.
Nicole Jaeckel is a J.D. candidate for the class of 2021 at Cornell Law School. In 2018, she obtained her B.A. in Political Communication from The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Nicole is an associate writer for The Issue Spotter. She also serves as an associate writer for the LII Supreme Court Bulletin and the IT Director for Cornell Law Students Association.