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How the Cattle Industry Is Fighting Against #FakeMeat

Plant-based companies are giving the beef industry a run for their money — and cattle ranchers are starting to worry

Oh, it’s on: The nation’s largest cattle industry lobby group (the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association) recently filed a petition with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prevent plant-based protein companies (like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods) from using the terms “meat” and “beef” to label their products.

“The labels of ‘beef’ or ‘meat’ should inform consumers that the product is derived naturally from animals as opposed to alternative proteins such as plants and insects or artificially grown in a laboratory,” the petition states, arguing that consumers are being misled into buying plant-based proteins that have the terms “meat” or “beef” somewhere on their packaging, like Trader Joe’s “Beef-less Ground Beef.”

On the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association Facebook page, one commenter sums up their beef with beef-less products pretty well:

Admittedly, this could maybe be an issue for some people. A two-year-old Reddit post asks for better terms to describe “fake meat,” noting that some customers were confused by fake lamb, chicken and steak products being served at their family member’s cafe. Other Redditors chimed in, suggesting “faux,” “mock” and the simple (but effective) “plant-based protein.”

The increasingly popular Beyond Burger has “Plant-Based Burger Patties” printed in bold, green font on their packaging. Yet, the Cattlemen’s Association presumably takes issue with their company name — Beyond Meat — since it might suggest they’re selling actual animal flesh.

More specifically, though, the Cattlemen’s Association is concerned that consumers are increasingly opting for plant-based protein, because they’re being tricked into thinking plant-based “meat” and “beef” is the real thing — an argument that appears to thoroughly doubt the common sense of American consumers.

It’s true that more and more Americans are turning to plant-based proteins, but not because they can’t understand product labels: According to recent data from HealthFocus International, a market research and strategic consulting company, 60 percent of of U.S. consumers claim to be reducing their consumption of meat-based products. Of that 60 percent, 55 percent report that the change toward a predominantly plant-based diet is permanent, while another 22 percent hope that they can maintain it. Considering this trend, Allied Market Research expects that the plant-based industry will garner $5.2 billion in sales by 2020, meaning you can expect more “fake meat” products to hit the shelves over the next couple of years.

For its part, Beyond Meat isn’t the least bit concerned about this recent petition. “I don’t think consumers would be adverse to defining meat by its composition and appearance (an assembly of amino acids, lipids, trace minerals and water presented in the form of poultry, beef or pork) versus origin (must be derived from a chicken, cow or pig),” Ethan Brown, CEO and Founder of Beyond Meat, writes via email. “All of this said, a gathering demand among consumers, particularly the young consumers who are spearheading this change, is a hard thing to roll back. If a hypothetical landline telephone association were somehow successful in convincing regulators that mobile phones could no longer advertise using the word ‘phone,’ I’m willing to bet consumers would continue to buy them as they do today. So, I don’t think that an argument over words is going to stem the consumer tide.”

Even more worrisome for the cattle industry is that other food industry giants are beginning to support these newer companies: Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in America, currently owns a five percent stake in Beyond Meat — and they recently invested an additional undisclosed amount in the company to take advantage of the growing demand for plant-based protein.

Beyond Meat is hoping to work alongside even more meat processors, too — including, oddly enough, the Cattlemen’s Association. “I very sincerely respect the way of life of American ranchers as hardworking stewards of vast amounts of our lands,” Brown writes. “I believe there’s opportunity to work together to serve the changing consumer, one that could mark the beginning of a new era of productivity in American agriculture. As a child, I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time on a Holstein dairy farm, as well as later live on the grounds of an Angus ranch, so I certainly don’t strike an adversarial tone but rather one of, let’s get together [and] consider the art-of-the-possible with respect to serving the consumer’s protein needs.”

This may come in the form of sharing land, or the general protein market. “Are we interested in exploring what plant protein crops may work on certain grazing lands? Absolutely,” Brown continues. “Do I think that a plant-based takeover of the animal protein industry is imminent? No, I don’t.”

Whether or not the Cattlemen’s Association decides to share, they aren’t exactly setting themselves up for success with this recent petition. “I certainly think that with this petition, the cattlemen are asking the USDA to set itself up to lose in court,” Jessica Almy, policy director at the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to conventional meat-based products), told CNBC in February. “I think their proposal would violate the First Amendment if the USDA adopted it. The government only has the authority to regulate free speech, like telling plant-based and clean-meat companies how to label their products, if it’s necessary to ensure consumers aren’t misled.”

And again, there’s little evidence to suggest that people are confused by these labels.

But this isn’t the first time Big Animal Agriculture has attempted (emphasis on attempted) to restrict the language used by smaller plant-based companies. The American dairy industry has been trying to bar plant-based dairy companies from using “milk,” “butter” and “yogurt” for upwards of 20 years — and they’ve yet to come to a consensus.

Still, decades of failure hasn’t stopped the dairy industry from continuing to try. They recently helped draft the Dairy Pride Act, which received support from a few congressional lawmakers from dairy-producing states (Wisconsin, California and Minnesota). If the law were to pass, non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds and plants would no longer be labelled with conventional dairy terms. But once again, that’s unlikely: Americans have managed to discern the difference between “milk” and “soy milk” for decades — and unless consumers are truly bewildered, freedom of (commercial) speech will likely continue to protect the use of such terms by plant-based companies.

In short, don’t expect to see “Soy Discs®” replace hamburgers on store shelves any time soon.