Can You Call it Meat?

NPR recently ran a story, in which I was quoted, about the rise of state laws limiting the use of words like “beef”, “meat” and even “rice” on plant-base alternatives. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has just filed suit against the state of Arkansas over the state’s enactment of a law that would fine “plant-based and cell-based meat product, such as “veggie burgers” and “tofu dogs,” marketed or packaged with a “meat” label.”

What to make of all this? One one hand, these sorts of new laws originate from some of the same motivation of older “standards of identity” laws. These laws define how certain words can be used on food labels and in marketing. The stated purpose of the laws are to protect consumers and to prevent consumers from being misled. For example, in the past, some unscrupulous millers added wood shavings to flour. If consumers can’t tell before buying whether it’s the real or adulterated version, we can wind up a markets-for-lemons problem, which would drive the high quality products out of the market and leave consumers worse off.

However, here’s what I wrote about this a while back (I also included a few illustrative pictures of labels):

In the case of beef, I am a bit skeptical that consumers will be mislead by the start-up meat alternatives. Why? These aren’t generic products being sold by companies trying to water down or adulterate a product with cheaper inputs. These are branded products created by firms whose whole marketing strategy is to tell people their product is NOT beef. ... Even without the identity standards, it is not as if consumers are totally unprotected. If they are, in fact, misled, the legal system offers possible remedy. As witnessed by the numerous lawsuits over the use of the word “natural,” I suspect there are plenty of lawyers out there willing to help a consumer who can show they’ve experienced damages.

The counter response is that people might associate words like “beef”, "meat”, or “milk” with other product attributes such as nutritional content, which might (sometimes inappropriately) carry over to the plant- or lab-based products. Nutritional facts panels may serve to mitigate some of these concerns, but there is little doubt that labels create various taste and health halos that extend beyond the objective facts.

At the same time, words are needed to convey meaning to consumers beyond just animal content. Using the word ground “meat” tells me something about how the food is expected to be cooked and served and which condiments are appropriate. In this instance, using “meat” with “plant-based” is helpful to the consumer insofar as quickly conveying key information about how the product is to be cooked and consumed.

Thus, there are pros and cons and costs and benefits to these types of labeling laws. I’ve seen a few polls on what consumers think about these labeling laws. However, It would be useful to see more empirical research over whether consumers are, in fact, mislead or perhaps more informed by meat/milk labels on plant-based products.