After Quebec cattle farmers launched a complaint against Beyond Meat for advertising their plant-based products as “meat,” a Canadian agriculture expert called it “food appropriation.”
This month, the Quebec Cattle Producers Federation filed a complaint with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) claiming that the Los Angeles-based company Beyond Meat shouldn’t be allowed to advertise its products as “meat” as the main ingredient in most items is “pea protein isolate,” which is made from peas. The organization filed a similar complaint against Beyond Meat’s French advertising in January and are still waiting to hear from the CFIA.
The federation representing Quebec cattle farmers referred VICE to an interview with CBC by its vice-president Kirk Jackson, who said that Quebec producers are opposed to the term “plant-based meat,” which Beyond Meat uses.
"We just want a fair, level-playing field,” he said.
The CFIA’s rules about what can and can’t be defined as ‘meat’ are clear-cut—if there’s an animal carcass involved, then it’s meat.
Sylvain Charlebois, a Dalhousie University professor of food distribution and policy, said this is a case of "food appropriation."
"It’s not as severe as cultural appropriation but one can argue that some terms are being used to give certain foods different attributes that don’t necessarily exist,” Charlebois said.
Although Charlebois said the Quebec cattle producers have a case, he describes it as “a long shot” because the CFIA regulates ingredients and “Beyond Meat” is a brand, not an ingredient. It would be different if the cattle industry had a marketing board, like the dairy, eggs, and poultry industries do, which "regulate the hell out of the sector as much as possible,” said Charlebois.
Charlebois pointed to the fact that companies such as Kraft can’t call their processed cheese products such as Cheez Whiz "cheese"—they use an alternate spelling. But the cattle and pork industry in Canada doesn’t have a marketing regulator equivalent.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said that although the CFIA isn’t a marketing board, decisions regarding how a product is advertised fall within its scope. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the federal body will act on this matter though.
A company spokesperson said that Beyond Meat "takes regulatory compliance very seriously. We appreciate the feedback we have received regarding our product communications and are reviewing internally to ensure we comply with Canadian regulations.”
Two weeks ago, Beyond Meat continued its expansion in Canada, announcing that its products would be available in more than 3,000 grocery stores across the country. This comes after its flagship product, the Beyond Burger, debuted in Canadian A&W stores last year and was so popular it kept selling out.
Quebec’s cattle farmers—which represent hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle— launched a complaint, but their Western Canada counterparts—who represent millions of heads of cattle—have been considerably less vocal about the Beyond Meat threat.
Fawn Jackson, senior manager of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said the association is aware of the issue. “All farmers will be watching the outcome of the complaint because we’d all like to see labeling requirements upheld by those who produce food.”
According to Charlebois, Quebec may be taking the lead because many Western meat producers are also growers of ingredients that are used in meat substitutes, including peas, grains, chickpeas, and canola. “Farmers are the best hedgers in the world. Every year, if livestock is down, grains are up. The other year, it will be the opposite."
A spokesperson for the federation representing Quebec cattle producers said that farmers in Quebec are also growing grains and that’s not the point—theirs is a stand based on principle.
In the U.S., as first reported by the New York Times, rancher lobby groups have stepped up their efforts to target lawmakers at the state level, demanding that only animal products can be called “meat.” They have already successfully swayed the rules in their favour in 15 states.
According to Charlebois, the federal rules around this are less clear-cut than in Canada, which is why lobbyists have approached it at the state-level. The stakes are high—the meat alternative market is a booming industry that is set to reach an estimated $7.5 billion USD worldwide by 2025.
Beyond Meat's Initial Public Offering last week was the most successful IPO of the year so far, and likely the most profitable since the financial crisis in 2008. Charlebois says it’s a sign of the times when a much-hyped company like Uber goes public and flops, while Beyond Meat’s stock price has soared.
The meat-alternative company has had deep-pocketed investors for some time, including actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Shares of Beyond Meat were up as much as 16 percent Wednesday on news that Canada’s largest coffee chain, Tim Hortons, is testing Beyond Meat breakfast sandwiches on its menu in 60 restaurants in the Toronto area.
According to research from Dalhousie University, there are more than 3 million vegans and vegetarians across Canada, who represent 9.4 percent of the population. Of those vegans and vegetarians, 71 percent are under the age of 39, and Charlebois says the trend is growing. Since 2001, the average Canadian now eats about 10 kilograms less meat each year.
“We’re living through an historical moment right now in Canada when it comes to dietary trends. There is momentum, a shift going on, beyond intrigue and fads and curiosity. There is this collective questioning around animal proteins in general. Our relationship with food is changing,” he said.
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