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Are Meat Substitutes Meat? Several States Say No.

North Dakota is the latest state to restrict the use of the term in food labeling to protect its livestock industry.
The United States Cattlemen's Association has asked federal regulators to reserve the terms "beef" and "meat" for products derived only from animals.

The United States Cattlemen's Association has asked federal regulators to reserve the terms "beef" and "meat" for products derived only from animals.

In recent years, scientists and start-ups have developed plant-based substitutes that taste, feel, and even act like meat. But lawmakers in an increasing number of states want these companies to leave the word "meat" out of it. "Meat is meat," Mike Deering, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, told New Food Economy last year. Citing protections for the beef industry and consumers, a wave of new laws require that food products claiming to be "meat" come from an animal carcass.

Last month, North Dakota became the latest state to restrict the use of the term in food labeling, joining Missouri, Montana, and South Dakota. North Dakota's bill imposes a penalty for companies that misrepresent their products as "meat," which is defined as "the edible flesh of an animal born and harvested for the purpose of human consumption," according to the Bismarck Tribune.

The uproar over labeling has become more pressing as plant-based meats like the Impossible burger find their markets. Cultured meat, known as cell-based meat and "clean meat," has also threatened the beef industry, prompting the United States Cattlemen's Association to ask federal regulators last year to reserve the terms "beef" and "meat" for products derived only from slaughtered animals, and not their cell lines.

It's still unclear whether regulators will comply: In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced their first formal joint agreement to oversee the regulation of cell-based livestock and poultry, with additional requirements on labeling still to come. As Vox explains, these nationwide standards would override any individual state prohibitions. But that hasn't stopped legislators from trying.

A Free Speech Fight?

In 2018, in the first legislation of its kind, Missouri passed a law requiring products to be identified as "plant-based" or "grown in a lab." Since then, lawmakers in Virginia, Nebraska, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Indiana have introduced similar bills, according to Stateline, a publication produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Some target only plant-based meats, while others extend their prohibitions to cultured meats. Many have faced legal challenges, or died in committee: Virginia's bill, defeated in January, went after any cell- or plant-based product that "purports to be, or is represented as, a meat food product."

Montana lawmakers sent a "Real Meat" act to the governor's desk last week, focusing only on cell-based meat that's marketed the same way as steaks and hamburgers. The law's sponsor framed this as a fight against deceptive marketing, all in the interest of the consumer. "Picture, if you will, on the grill a nice, juicy burger. Then picture another thing on the grill that came from a petri dish," State Representative Alan Redfield said in an interview with Montana Public Radio. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana opposed the bill, arguing that the restriction violates First Amendment protections for commercial speech.

Protecting the Beef Industry

As in North Dakota, the labeling fight generally divides along industry lines: Organizations representing farmers and ranchers back the bills, while animal rights groups and plant-based meat companies oppose them.

In a celebratory statement published last week by Tri-State Livestock News, the Independent Beef Association of North Dakota emphasized that the bill would restore transparency that it says consumers are clamoring for: "[T]he measure will ensure consumers are properly informed through point-of-sale labeling about whether the beef they're purchasing is grown conventionally or whether it's produced in a laboratory."

The representatives who sponsor these bills freely admit that they will help the producers, as well as consumers, of beef—especially in states like Nebraska, where beef is big business. Meat producers across the country pay a portion of their earnings to commodity checkoff programs that help market their products, but they don't want plant-based and cultured meats to reap the benefits. "We don't want this substance riding on our back," South Dakota Senator Oren Lesmeister, who sponsored his state's bill to protect animal agriculture, said in an interview with AgWeek.

The Future of 'Meat'

Not all of the meat industry has antagonized its plant- and cell-based competitors: As Quartz explains, large poultry and pork companies like Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in cultured meat start-ups. The country's ranchers, who are generally less beholden to corporate monopolies, might feel the threat more profoundly.

Although many developers and sustainability advocates eagerly await its arrival, cultured meat is still a fledgling industry: Even the product's name remains in flux. But by all accounts, it's growing—estimated to hit $14.22 billion by 2022, according to Ozy—and promises to reduce the carbon footprint of a very costly protein. Plant-based alternatives, meanwhile, are already being called "Whoppers" in select Burger Kings across the country.