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The Meat Lobby's Bill to Ban the Phrase 'Fake Meat' Shows the Real Threat of Plant-Based Alternatives

Missouri has passed a bill preventing meat substitutes from using the word "meat" on their products. Here's how brands such as Beyond Meat are coping.

by Lauren Rothman
May 24 2018, 5:04pm

Photo via Flickr user James Green

Ah, summer: time to crack open a few cold ones, fire up the grill, and load it with plenty of burgers and dogs—of both the real and faux meat variety. If you and your pals are anything like the growing percentage of Americans that are trying to scale back their meat intake—between 2005 and 2014, beef consumption in the US dropped by about 20 percent—then your Weber is likely to feature a few Boca Burgers, tofu dogs, or “chik’n” patties. Just don’t refer to those animal-free foodstuffs as “fake meat” if you’re in Missouri.

That’s the message being broadcast from Missouri, where, last week, the state legislature passed an omnibus agricultural bill that, if signed into law, would ban makers of common meat substitutes from using the word “meat” in their product labeling. The measure would apply to both traditional soy and plant protein subs such as Tofurky, as well as to newer “lab-grown meat” brands like the San Francisco startup Memphis Meats. Plenty of these companies have the word sprinkled all over their packaging—grain-based Gardein products are touted as “Meatless Meat,” and Whole Foods’ 365 brand carries Meatless Meatballs, Meatless Burgers and Meatless Breakfast Patties—so such a law would have a costly impact on the brands’ marketing and packaging in the state, forcing a total overhaul.

As with any measure deliberated over by lawmakers, there’s politics afoot in this one. Backed by the state’s pork producers and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, the bill appears to be a product of meat lobbies spooked by the country’s growing taste for vegetarian substitutes, and its language parallels that of a House bill sponsored by Republican State Representative Jeff Knight, a former livestock auctioneer. This is far from the first time the meatless meat issue has come up: in February, the US Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the USDA to revise national labeling standards, a measure bolstered by the National Farmers Union in a letter of support filed last month. Big Meat’s fears appear to have merit: a recent Nielsen poll found that 23 percent of global consumers want more plant-based proteins on supermarket shelves.

But makers of meat substitutes say that Missouri’s efforts are misguided. One company speaking out against the bill is Beyond Meat, which engineers plant-based burgers whose nutritional structure is very similar to that of real meat, and which has deep stakes in the outcome of the bill: First, because its very name includes the word “meat,” and second, because it’s a Missouri-born business whose production facilities are located in Columbia, about 100 miles west of St. Louis. According to Ethan Brown, the company’s CEO, the passing of the bill is a move that will backfire.

“The meat industry is doing well in the US and elsewhere,” he told MUNCHIES. “I think this is really premature, and ultimately counterproductive.”

Brown went on to explain Beyond Meat’s origin story. Founded in 2009, the company’s plant protein-based burgers, sausages, and chicken strips are the result of a collaboration with two University of Missouri researchers, Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, biological engineers whose work breaks down the composition of meat into its amino acids, trace minerals and other elements—then builds those back up again in meat-free foods that have been lauded for their ability to mimic the real deal. Brown said he was saddened that the state that birthed his venture has acted in a manner that’s so hostile to the company.

“We wouldn’t be here as a company it it weren't for the University of Missouri. We’ve worked with them over many years.”

And because Beyond Meat has been so successful—it’s already brought an influx of jobs to the region, and plans to greatly expand its production facilities in the next year, thereby creating more employment opportunities in Missouri—Brown sees the legislature’s move as ultimately harmful to its own populace and its own economy.

“To have the state act in a way that’s counter to enormous growth and to employment… it’s unusual,” he said. Plus, he added, the meat industry’s fuss over its competition only serves to build even more consumer awareness of meat substitutes. “It’s not helping their cause, because it just gives us attention.”

Ultimately, Brown doesn’t believe that the bill has legs, so Beyond Meat isn’t looking too deeply into how it would have to overhaul its marketing in Missouri just yet.

“This is not going to work, what they’re trying,” he said. “It’s very hard to roll back a consumer movement that’s got so much momentum behind it.”

Indeed, the meatless meat train seems unstoppable at this point. Late last year, (real) chicken giant Tyson Foods invested additional capital into Beyond Meat, increasing its 5 percent ownership stake, and in January it also threw its dollars behind the aforementioned Memphis Meats, which uses lab-grown animal tissues to craft its beef, chicken and duck products.

That’s the future that Brown sees for companies like his: as collaborators with, not adversaries of, big agriculture. He said that Beyond Meat is currently exploring ways to team with growers of cattle grazing land to see how some of that acreage can be used to produce the legumes that the company uses in its foods.

“Before we start fighting, where can we work together—and both make more money?”

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