U.S. Cattlemen want the word "meat" banned from plant-based foods

veggie burger
CC BY 2.0 Erin Pawlicki -- The U.S. Cattlemen's Association wishes we'd stop calling this a burger.

Could the once-powerful beef industry be feeling a wee bit threatened?

It should come as no surprise that the U.S. Cattlemen's Association has a beef with vegans, but its most recent move suggests that it is feeling quite threatened. The Association has filed a 15-page petition with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), requesting that it define the word "meat" so that it cannot be used to label products that do not contain animal flesh.

The Association says that "consumers are being confused and misled when they’re sold burgers and other meat products that contain alternative protein." Lia Biondo, the Association's policy and outreach director, told CNBC:

"While at this time alternative protein sources are not a direct threat to the beef industry, we do see improper labeling of these products as misleading. Our goal is to head off the problem before it becomes a larger issue."

Regardless of what Biondo claims is the reason, the petition does reek of defensiveness. It's rather ridiculous to argue that the average shopper can't tell the difference between a quinoa-potato starch burger and a ground beef one, even if they're in the same freezer; at the very least, it's a mistake one would make only once.

It is more likely that the once-powerful beef industry is feeling threatened by (a) the rapid growth of veganism (the BBC called 2017 the year that veganism went mainstream), (b) the 60 percent of U.S. consumers who say they're reducing the amount of meat they eat, and (c) the fact that big meat and agricultural companies like Tyson and Cargill have invested majorly in plant-based and lab-grown startups.

It is estimated that the plant-based meat industry could bring in $5.2 billion in sales in the next two years, which means there's going to be a whole lot more "fake meat" on store shelves, no matter what we're calling it.

What do vegans think about labels?

Vegans have differing opinions on how plant-based products are labeled. Some wouldn't mind if the cattlemen's petition succeeded because they dislike the "carnist-themed food names." On a Quora forum, a long-time vegan argued that we should "quit trying to copy non-vegan foods, especially meat, and instead, start thinking about food in a new way." One commenter said that eating meatless meatballs, tofurkey, seitan, and vegetarian sausage is "really gross" and a better approach is to look to cultures (India, Ethiopia, Middle East) that have embraced plant-based foods for centuries without relying on heavy processing or meaty lookalikes.

Yet others argue that having meat-like names is helpful, especially to new vegans. Would you know what to do with "veggie balls" if you found them in the freezer section, or would a "vegan meatballs" label be more helpful? Meat can represent a main course, a filling staple in a meal, without needing to be flesh-based.

It appears doubtful that the Association's petition will be successful. Jessica Almy, a lawyer with the Good Food Institute, told USA Today:

"I certainly think that with this petition, the cattlemen are asking the USDA to set itself up to lose in court. 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."

Plus, the word "meat" doesn't have nearly as narrow a definition as the cattlemen would like to think. Merriam-Webster points out multiple meanings:

What do you think? What comes to mind when you think of the word "meat"?

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