Today, Missouri is ground zero for a meat labeling debate that will very likely shape the future of animal agriculture; but not for the reason you may think.
Outgoing Gov. Eric Greitens recently signed a measure to prohibit companies in the state from misrepresenting products as meat which aren’t “derived from harvested production of livestock or poultry.” The law was a direct reaction to the explosion of “bleeding” plant-based burgers, chicken and sausage mimics, and the inevitable ascension of laboratory cultured meat to a grocer near you. With some analysts projecting fake meat will occupy a $5.2 billion global market by 2020, it’s clear these changes appeal to consumers in ways that the greyish, rubbery veggie patties of yesterday never could.
Unsurprisingly, the Missouri Cattleman’s Association, Missouri Farm Bureau and Missouri Pork Association, all of which represent farmers whose livelihoods depend on meat maintaining its dominance in the global diet, have hung their hats on the meat label with the hope that it will accomplish just that. On Thursday, during a U.S. Food and Drug Administration meeting on cultured (laboratory-grown) meat, the industry will likely lobby for more of the same.
But putting the meat industry’s eggs in the labeling strategy basket exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of the market forces surrounding fake meat. Consumers aren’t filling their carts with “Beefless Crumbles” or “100% Plant Protein Beyond Chicken Tenders” under a mistaken assumption that the products actually contain meat. They’re doing it for precisely the opposite reason.
From a consumer’s perspective, several reports paint a disparaging picture: The World Health Organization’s cancer research arm condemns processed meat as a carcinogen, with red meat trailing behind as just marginally less dangerous. The American Heart Association lumps red meat in with sweets, sodium and trans fats as key items to avoid for a heart-healthy diet. Couple the power of self-interested health concerns with the barrage of stories tying conventional animal agriculture to environmental destruction and the end of the antibiotic era, and it’s no wonder the omnivorous public has warmed to the idea that eating less meat could be a good thing.
Enter fake meat. Today’s products are marketed as a tit-for-tat response to every public relations nightmare that’s plagued the meat industry since Upton Sinclair invited readers to peek into “The Jungle.” Just look at their commercials: Beyond Meat first advertised its flagship product, the Beyond Burger, juxtaposed against trees and whole fruits and vegetables. A cool, motherly voice claims Morningstar Farms’ meatless grillers are “better for you.”
The concerted greenwashing appears to be working. Data from market research firm Mintel indicates that one-third of U.S. consumers intend to buy more plant-based food products over the next year — labels be damned. But for fake meat companies, greenwashing also comes at a price. Increasingly, consumers value “clean” nutrition labels with ingredients they can pronounce. And “clean” labels are one thing fake meat cannot offer.
Morningstar Farms Chick’n Nuggets contain a whopping 58 ingredients, the bulk of which aim to mimic the texture and mouthfeel of real meat (for comparison, market leader Tyson’s chicken nuggets use fewer than half as many ingredients). The fake meat version contains methylcellulose, the active ingredient in many popular laxatives. Cellulose gum in Morningstar’s other products yields a similarly undesirable effect with the added benefit of reducing the nutritive value in food containing the additive in large amounts.
It’s a similar story for other fake meat companies. The popular Beyond Burgers are the vegan equivalent of pink slime, their plantbased proteins having been liquefied and defatted, then reconstituted with the fats of other vegetables. These aren’t healthy fats either. The American Heart Association advises against consuming refined coconut oil, which is Beyond Burger’s fourth ingredient by weight. Refined coconut oil raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, and the refining process robs the final product of its initial nutrient content.
Soy leghemoglobin, a protein found in the root of soybean plants that isn’t typically consumed by humans, is the ingredient responsible for the vegan Impossible Burger’s meaty flavor. But while genetically modified plant heme and a patty that “bleeds” beet juice made manufacturer Impossible Foods a media darling, the innovation didn’t sit well with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency refused to award Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status to Impossible’s soy leghemoglobin, believing that existing data failed to “establish the safety of soy leghemoglobin for consumption.” Yet in an article authored last week, the company’s Chief Communications Officer maligned everyone who dares to question the Impossible Burger’s safety as “anti-science fundamentalists” akin to those who deny global warming.
Despite the industry’s obvious sensitivity, the way in which some of these fake meat products are processed is perhaps more concerning that what’s written on the label. Hexane, a gasoline byproduct that the federal government classifies as a neurotoxin and hazardous air pollutant, is a popular solvent for separating plant proteins from oil. Since the FDA doesn’t monitor hexane residues in processed food, consumers have no way of knowing how much residual hexane remains in the final product.
For consumers who are switching to fake meat for its purported health benefits, it’s clear that widespread knowledge about their products’ processing and questionable ingredients are the fake meat industry’s Achilles heel. American consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for products with recognizable ingredients — and I’d wager that soy leghemoglobin and methylcellulose are not counted among that class.
If meat manufacturers want to stem the flow of consumers turning to fake meat for its purported health and environmental benefits, the “meat is meat” labeling war is a sideshow for their efforts. Those interested in the outcome of the labeling tactic need look no further than the dairy section at their local grocer. For years, milk manufacturers have been embroiled in legal battles to secure the definition of “milk” and “butter” as products that come exclusively from animals. Meanwhile, my own Safeway displays about a case and a half of plant-based milks beneath its “pure and wholesome dairy” moniker.
If meat producers continue down this same path, they may emerge from a successful campaign to see products proudly advertising, “these products do not contain meat” occupying half the meat section.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.