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Don't like veggie burgers? Fine, but don't censor them

Don't like veggie burgers? Fine, but don't censor them
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If politicians from ranching states have a beef with plant-based meat, they shouldn’t buy it. 

Instead, these members of Congress have introduced the “Real MEAT Act,” which adds new requirements that certain foods be labeled “imitation” and effectively makes the federal government step in as the word police. 

That “MEAT” in the title, if you’re wondering, stands for “Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully,” much like the “DAIRY PRIDE” in the DAIRY PRIDE Act stands for “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday.”

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With such atrocious acronyms, do we really want these people to legislate the English language?

These bills — and similar ones in state legislatures — are premised on the idea that consumers need protection because they don’t understand the terms “veggie burgers” and “almond milk.”

But this contention is insulting to consumers, a point made very clear by a judge in Arkansas last week: “The State appears to believe that the simple use of the word ‘burger,’ ‘ham,’ or ‘sausage’ leaves the typical consumer confused, but such a position requires the assumption that a reasonable consumer will disregard all other words found on the label. That assumption is unwarranted.” 

Of course, the judge is right — no one is confused by the word “burger” in “veggie burger.” Similarly, as another court pointed out, no reasonable consumer believes that “veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.” 

Honestly, it doesn’t matter if you eat a Beyond Burger every day or if you will go to your grave before trying one. The point is that the government should not (and constitutionally cannot) meddle in the market and censor labels without a very compelling reason.

Federal law already prohibits misleading food labels, so clearly this legislation isn't aimed at deceptive labeling. Rather, the real motivation here is to protect the ranching industry from competition. But that’s no excuse for censorship. 

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In fact, it’s a double whammy: Interfering in the market by violating free speech.

And to be clear, this is the quintessential solution in search of a problem: The whole value proposition of plant-based foods is that they’re plant-based.

Producers have every incentive to clearly communicate that to consumers. Banning small businesses from using common words or compelling them to label their food “imitation” would just cause confusion. 

Consider Tofurky’s plant-based Italian sausage. If the company couldn’t use the word “sausage” — as an Arkansas law would require — they would be stuck using words like “roll,” “finger,” or “tube,” words which might conjure images of fluffy bakery products, human appendages, or the London subway.

None of these words would communicate anything about the food itself. Or consider what it would be like if Tofurky were forced to call it “imitation sausage.” Consumers might reasonably think that it’s “mystery meat,” much like imitation crab is some kind of inferior seafood. But of course, plant-based meats are not animal meat at all.

Given the array of foods in the grocery store, it’s not hard to imagine how much mischief this heavy-handed approach could cause. Peanut butter has no butter, Rocky Mountain oysters are not oysters, and hot dogs do not contain dog. Will these terms be banned next? 

Most importantly, these attempts at censorship are ultimately aimed at putting a thumb on the scale to reduce competition. 

Instead of pushing bills like the REAL Meat Act, our lawmakers should instead ensure a level playing field for all food producers.

Jessica Almy is a lawyer and Director of Policy for The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit harnessing the power of food innovation and markets to accelerate progress toward a better food system.