The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Melissa Kravitz
Fried chicken, bacon cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza aren't uncommon to see on vegan menus—or even the meat-free freezer section of your local supermarket—but should we be calling these mock meat dishes the same names? A new Missouri law doesn't think so. The state's law, which forbids "misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry," has led to a contentious ethical, legal and linguistic debate. Four organizations—Tofurky, the Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Animal Legal Defense Fund—are now suing the state on the basis that not only is the law against the U.S. Constitution, but it favors meat producers for unfair market competition.
While some newly formulated meat-free products, like the plant-based Beyond Burger or its rival the Impossible Burger (the veggie burger that "bleeds"), may be deceptively meat-like, it's hard to understand how consumers could actually be duped into thinking non-meat products are legitimately meat.
"The law violates constitutional right to free speech," explained Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Amanda Howell. "It's wide in scope, vague, broad and problematic. An ordinary person can't tell you what this law is about." Although legal jargon is often hard for the typical non-attorney to understand, Howell explained that one thing is easy for the everyday American: distinguishing plant-based meat-like products from actual meat. To date, there are zero consumer complaints on file in Missouri of shoppers confusing meat-like products with actual meat, according to Howell and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Missouri currently produces the third-highest amount of beef cattle in the U.S. (preceded by Oklahoma and Texas at the top spot), and the beef industry is threatened by imitation meat products, proven to be better for the environment (though Beef Magazine attempts to negate climate science) and sometimes healthier than animal-derived red meat. As food science disrupts what people think of as "meat," the future of the livestock industry may be endangered, and that's a threat to ranchers.
Legally, there's no reason why fake sausage or imitation turkey can't be labeled as such. Under the Consumer Protection Law, as long as a product's statement of identity is "truthful and not misleading, it's legal," said Howell. This statement of identity informs consumers of what's inside a package and can help inform them of how to use and eat a product. "Consumers would be more confused if they were not able to use meat-related terminology," Howell said. "It's pretty obvious that they're taking away the terminology so consumers won't know what the products are, and they'll sound less appealing." Vegan sausage is understandable; seasoned soy patties, not so much. "Consumers should have access to truthful information, clearly labeled [foods], instead of taking away naming conventions just because an industry is scared," Howell said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which takes a staunchly anti-meat stance, also stands behind using meat terms and "letting the terms 'steak' and 'sausage' evolve with the times," according to Ben Williamson, PETA's senior international media director.
"The meat industry is going up against a public that is learning that eating meat is responsible for tremendous animal abuse, linked to diabetes, strokes, heart disease and cancer, and is an environmental nightmare," Williamson said. "Healthy, ethical and 100-percent humane, vegan products are a booming market, and lawmakers' time and efforts would be better served helping transition meat producers into vegan companies."
Linguistically, calling plant-based meat "meat" is not necessarily an issue in English. "If we go back to what meat used to mean, it referred to food in general," said linguist Carrie Gillon. "In about 1300, the definition changed to mean animal flesh food." But even though the definition of "meat" narrowed centuries ago, that doesn't mean it can't also be used more generally as language evolves. Gillon uses prototype theory to explain this—that is, the theory that each noun we use has a prototype. If you think of a bird, you may think of a wren, but a penguin is also very much a bird—it just doesn't share all the characteristics of a stereotypical bird, like flying. This theory could also apply to meat, or non-meat meat: When we think of meat, we think animal flesh, but why not expand the definition to foods that share characteristics with meat, like the meat of a peach, perhaps, or ground tofu that mimics ground beef?
"As long as the food has something in common with meat, like texture or taste, it makes total sense to extend the word meat to plant-based proteins," Gillon said, noting that this wouldn't work, say, with just a block of tofu, but anything that has something in common with our prototype of meat.
For vegetarians like food blogger Lori Nelson, meat-free foods named after their animal counterparts are preferred, for clarity. "Labels like 'vegan chicken' save me time because I don't eat meat. If it's labeled 'vegan chicken,' I don't have to worry about it being actual chicken," she explained. Plus, for vegetarians who have previously eaten meat, or at least seen meat in media, these mock products' names provide a clearer idea of what they will taste like.
"We're just trying to ensure a level playing field for plant-based meats," said Howell. "People want cruelty-free sausage."
Melissa Kravitz is a writer based in New York. She is a writing fellow at Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She's written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Glamour, AlterNet, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, Them and other publications. She holds a Bachelor's degree in creative writing from Columbia University and is also at work on a forthcoming novel. Follow her on Twitter: @melissabethk.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
‘Companies Should Not Be Allowed to Use Hazardous Ingredients in Products People Use’: Michelle Pfeiffer Speaks Up for Safer Cosmetics
The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.
Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.
The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.
"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.
"There was a lot of devastation throughout the state," Governor Mike Parson said at a Thursday morning press conference, as NPR reported. "We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and we didn't have more fatalities across the state. But three is too many."