Meat industry is trying to stifle plant-based food innovation

Meat industry is trying to stifle plant-based food innovation
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Rewind the clock 20 years and imagine that then-behemoth Kodak, terrified of the threat to its photograph business posed by digital “film,” was faced with the decision of how to respond to such innovation. We all know the industry incumbent didn’t exactly rise to this particular Kodak moment, and instead eventually lost out to more innovative competitors like Canon that were willing to sacrifice their cash cows by advancing better alternatives. 

But now imagine that Kodak’s strategy involved not merely failing to embrace innovation, but also actively seeking to stifle its competition by backing federal legislation that would ban Canon from calling its digital pics “photographs.”

As surreal as that sounds, it’s pretty much exactly what some in the meat industry today are attempting in response to the recent success of products that look and taste like animal flesh but are actually made of plants.  

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Newly introduced federal legislation, the Real MEAT Act, would require meaty products that don’t come from slaughtered animals to be prominently labeled as “imitation.” (“MEAT,” in this case, is capitalized to acronymize “Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully.”)

The language of the bill alleges, without evidence, that “The lack of any Federal definition of ‘beef’ or ‘beef products’ for the purposes of meat food product labeling has led some to begin marketing imitation products as meat or beef.”

While the bill can make such claims until the cows come home, there are, in fact, no such mislabeled products on the market, and if there were, false advertising laws would already apply. 

The reality is that all of the companies making plant-based meats go to great lengths on their packaging to tout that their products are made from plants, not animals. Burger King’s much-touted Impossible Whopper, for example, is heavily promoted as “0% Beef,” while Carl’s Jr’s similar product using a Beyond Burger is labeled “100% Plant-Based.”

Whether for health, environmental, or animal welfare reasons, consumers of these products specifically seek them out for these very reasons. In other words, Americans are starting to flock to plant-based meat not because they’re somehow confused by its origin, but rather specifically because they know it doesn’t contain animal flesh.

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Bill sponsor Rep. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallMeat industry is trying to stifle plant-based food innovation Improving maternal health with data and care coordination Trump tears into impeachment probe, witnesses in early Twitter spree MORE (R-Kan.) explained his reasoning for bringing such a meaty topic to Congress. “With this bill, consumers can be sure that the meat products they are buying are indeed real meat.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, his bill’s introduction was applauded by the beef industry’s main trade association.

 The problem, of course, isn’t that consumers might be confused. The problem is instead that plant-based meats, just like plant-based milks, are no longer consumed solely by the very small portion of Americans who are vegan and shop at local co-ops.

Instead, they’re now being enjoyed by mainstream meat consumers who simply want to occasionally “cheat on meat.” And that’s with good reason: These products often taste really good, typically contain zero cholesterol, and require a mere fraction of the resources needed to raise and slaughter animals.

Some forward-thinking players in the meat industry, however, are acting far more like Canon rather than Kodak. Major companies aren’t joining the herd that’s trying to stifle marketplace competition. Rather they’re investing in and advancing such alternatives themselves, hoping to appeal to consumers who want to have their meat and eat it, too.  

These industry leaders know that such products aren’t “imitation” meat any more than digital pics are “imitation” photographs. They may not have been produced in the same manner as the incumbent products, but many consumers prefer the newer iteration because they perceive it to have real benefits over the old. 

Admittedly, it may seem a bit premature for anyone in the conventional meat industry to be shaking in their boots just yet.

After all, the U.S. produces more than 100 billion pounds of meat annually, and less than 200 million pounds of plant-based meat. In other words, meat from animals still holds a 99.8 percent market share and isn’t likely to be put out to pasture any time soon.

But if the story of digital film 20 years ago — or of plant-based milk even more recently — holds lessons for today, just maybe these products will soon play a more prominent role in building a more diverse and sustainable protein industry. 

Whether that happens or not, it’s clear that The Real MEAT Act isn’t about protecting consumers from confusion. It’s about protecting cattlemen from competition.

Paul Shapiro is the author of "Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World" and the CEO of The Better Meat Co.