Agriculture Food Trends Policy Update

What’s in a name? With passage of Missouri law, the battle over what constitutes “meat” ensues

Should plant-based meat alternatives and cell-based meat be labeled as meat?  A new law says no. Lindsay Gaesser summarizes the current debate on the use of the term “meat.”

As meat alternatives become increasingly popular among consumers, agribusiness is responding by turning to state legislators and federal agencies for protection.  With support from the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association (MCA), the state of Missouri recently passed a law that makes it a crime to use the term “meat” to describe anything “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”  Targeting plant-based meat substitutes and cell-based meats, which are made from animal muscle cells cultured in a lab, the law prevents companies from marketing such items as meat.  Violators may face a $1,000 fine and prison time. 

Since the law took effect August 28, it has sent ripples throughout the industry, setting the stage for the impending battle between conventional and cellular agriculture.

Proponents of the Missouri law say it helps eliminate confusion and protects consumers by letting them know exactly what they’re buying.  Lobbying on behalf of the bill, MCA executive vice president Mike Deering argued that plant-based meat substitutes and cell-based meats “mislead consumers [through the use of the word ‘meat’] into thinking those products are actually meat produced by farm and ranch families.”

Responding to the statute, Tofurky, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, and the Good Food Institute (GFI) have filed suit against the state of Missouri, seeking an injunction that would prevent the law from being enforced.  The plaintiffs allege that the law prevents the clear and accurate labeling of plant- and cell-based meat products and that it infringes on First Amendment rights because it restricts truthful commercial speech.

The complaint states that the labels and marketing materials used by Tofurky, as well as other plant-based meat companies for which GFI advocates, all clearly indicate that the products are plant based, meatless, vegetarian, or vegan.  Thus, the companies are entirely truthful and do not violate applicable labeling requirements set forth by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.  The marketing and packaging of these plant-based products do not mislead consumers.  Rather, the labels help to distinguish the products from their conventional meat counterparts.  As such, consumers are highly unlikely to be confused by the use of the term “meat.”

While Missouri is the first state to regulate the use of the word “meat” on food labels, it may not be the last.  JanLee Rowlett, the government affairs director at the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, hinted that the ICA might be interested in lobbying for an Iowa law mirroring Missouri’s.  If the Missouri law is upheld, other agricultural states may follow suit.   

At the federal level, a petition filed in February by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) seeks a comparable ruling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  The petition argues that cell-based meat and plant-based protein companies should not be able to call their products “meat” because they do not come from slaughtered animals.  The petition asked the USDA to exclude products from being classified as “meat” or “beef” if they did not come from cattle “born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner.”  The Cattlemen’s Association states that the “absence of a definition of ‘beef’ or ‘meat’ and specific rules and parameters as to what constitutes them [are] resulting in mislabeling and may lead to consumer confusion.”

It’s important to note that although the USCA petition targets both plant- and cell-based meats, it was spurred more by the development and rise of the latter.  While cell-based meats are derived from animals, they actually consist of muscle tissue cultured in vitro from an animal cell biopsy, thus eliminating the need to raise and slaughter livestock.  With their livelihoods at stake, those supporting the USCA’s petition include several cattlemen’s associations, state farm bureaus, and the National Farmers Organization.  In a surprising twist, however, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) opposes the petition. 

In its letter of opposition, NCBA states that the petition would not adequately provide meaningful protection for beef nomenclature.  Further, NCBA believes that the petitioners conflated issues related to marketing cell-based meat with those related to products from plants or other non-animal sources being marketed as meat.  The distinction is important because the USDA is responsible for ensuring the safety and proper labeling of meat, whereas the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authority over packaged foods, such as plant-based meat alternatives. 

If legislation to exclude cell-based meat products from the definition of “meat” is adopted, it would effectively exclude such products from USDA oversight.  To ensure regulatory equity, NCBA argues that producers of cell-based meat products “must adhere to the same stringent food safety inspection standards and comply with the same set of labeling mandates as all other traditional meat food products.”  Thus, the NCBA urges that the petition be denied so that cell-based meat remains under the USDA’s jurisdiction.     

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) also opposes the USCA petition on the grounds that it would cede jurisdiction of cell-based meat products to the FDA.  In an effort to advance the discussion surrounding cell-based meat, NAMI teamed with cell-based meat startup Memphis Meats to send a joint letter to the White House on August 23.  The letter suggested dual USDA-FDA regulation, as the “FDA has extensive expertise regarding products produced using cell culture technology and [the] USDA has a longstanding role in inspecting meat and poultry products.”

As a result, the agencies announced a joint public meeting to be held on October 23-24 to discuss how the sector might be regulated and how such products should be described on food labels.  The meeting will take place in the Jefferson Auditorium in the USDA South Building, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250.  Anyone who wishes to submit written comments prior to or after the public meeting may do so by submitting comments on by November 26.             

As the battle between conventional and cellular agriculture unfolds at the state and federal levels, important questions arise.  Will the court uphold the Missouri law, or strike it down as unconstitutional?  On a larger scale, will agribusiness prevail in its effort to protect the interests of the meat industry, or will the upcoming USDA-FDA meeting lead to a regulatory framework that ensures a level playing field in the “meat” marketplace?  Stay tuned to the Friedman Sprout for updates!        

Lindsay Gaesser is a first-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. In a career change inspired by Clean Meat, she hopes to help pave the way for the cellular agricultural revolution by promoting policies that bring cell-based meat and other cultured animal products to a commercial reality.    

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