Plant-based 'meat' labeling: A possible compromise?

Impossible Burger photo
CC BY 2.0 Tony Webster

Over at The Guardian, vegan food writer Aine Carline has a bone (sorry!) to pick with carnivores who are unhappy about the new breed of fake meat:

There seems to be a strain of thought that says: if you’re veggie or vegan, you should stick to vegetables that look and taste like vegetables, not ones that have been reconfigured to look like meat products. For these carnivores, it’s particularly troublesome when the texture and appearance is convincing – leading to petitions in the US, and a law in France to prevent fake meat being labelled as meat.

As a plant-centric omnivore who has written in defense of fake meat, I'm sympathetic to Aine's views. After all, given that every plant-based meat analog I have ever seen has packaging that is literally covered in (not unreasonable) claims about their health and environmental benefits compared to 'real' meats, I have a hard time believing that consumers will choose these foods by mistake.

That said, I do also believe that what we call things matters—and that food has cultural significance way beyond the molecules it's made up of or the nutrients it contains. I get, for example, why the European Union protects the naming of distinct regional products like Parmigiano-Reggiano, and as someone who grew up fifteen miles from Cheddar, I never fail to lose my cool at claims that it's an American cheese.

So here's a thought: Maybe purveyors of plant-based proteins could agree to use a different term and, in exchange, meat producers could agree to prominently label their products with information on the significant and growing body of evidence that excessive consumption leads to major health and environmental problems.

The new labels wouldn't even necessarily have to be of the "smoking will definitely lead to an early and unpleasant death" variety of scare tactic—instead perhaps sharing specifics of how the meat was raised, and the relative impact on the planet. An approach like this would not only give consumers more information to choose between plant-based and animal-based options, but might also encourage farmers who are aiming to reduce the impact of their animal husbandry. (To be fair, plant-based purveyors should probably also make a bigger deal of their own controversial ingredients—like heme or palm oil, for example.)

Alternatively, we could make sure ingredients are clearly labeled, and just let the consumer decide.

Anyhow, it's just a thought. It seems any time I write about this stuff I manage to annoy both vegans and carnivores alike—so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section below.

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