Don't You Dare Call It Meat

Nature

For many, scientific innovations tend to be welcome advancements that improve our lives. For some, however, new technologies bring risk of obsolescence, in turn leading to great resistance.

With the climate crisis unfolding before our eyes, the race is on to find alternatives that will help humanity leave a smaller footprint on our planet. Because of animal agriculture's leading role as a greenhouse gas emitter, the search for more sustainable protein sources could be one such alternative.

As food tech entrepreneurs use science to unlock the potential of plant proteins, they’re producing increasingly better plant-based burgers, deli slices and nuggets that look and taste like the real thing, but with a much lower carbon footprint. Some in the meat industry are embracing the new and investing in these alt-protein companies.

For some lawmakers, however, these innovative Silicon Valley–backed start-ups don’t deserve support; they deserve censorship. Missouri State Sen. Sandy Crawford, for example, who is also a cattle rancher, recently passed a bill making it a crime punishable by imprisonment for companies to call their products “meat” if they don’t come from a slaughtered animal. With fast-food chains like Carl’s Jr. and White Castle now offering animal-free burgers, a dozen other states are now considering "meat muzzle" bills modeled after Missouri’s.

All this is happening at the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering whether or not to ban makers of dairy-free beverages from using another coveted M-word on their packaging: “milk.” If the cattlemen lobby groups have their way, you may soon be kissing the term “almond milk” goodbye and reaching for an “almond beverage” instead.

So why the mania over meat and milk all of a sudden? Was there a recent scandal where a consumer brought home some patties labeled “plant-based meat” only to realize he was duped and that they don’t actually contain beef from a slaughtered cow? Did confused milk-drinkers file complaints with the Department of Agriculture when they found out their soymilk didn’t contain actual milk?

I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

To hear defenders of such laws tell it, there really are some consumers who are truly confused. Surveys show, however, that number is remarkably small. Others offer a different motivation, saying that even if consumers know these are ersatz products, they might be duped into thinking that the plant-based meats and milks have comparable nutritional value to their animal-based counterparts.

You have to wonder why that would be, though. Presumably, few people think that cow’s milk and goat’s milk are nutritionally identical. Why would anyone think so about cow’s milk and soymilk? Does anyone think peanut butter and almond butter have the same nutritional value as traditional dairy butter?

If anything, consumers are opting for these plant-based products specifically because they think they’re better for them than the original products. And they have good reason to believe that, since plant-based milks and meats have no cholesterol, and usually have less saturated fat and more fiber than comparable animal-based foods.

So, consumers aren’t confusing “veggie bacon” for bacon of the porcine variety; and if they don’t think chicken nuggets have the same nutritional value as “chicken-free nuggets,” then why do some meat and milk lobby groups want a monopoly over the M-words? Could it have to do with the fact that the increasing popularity of these foods, which are more sustainable and better for you, is threatening the profits of their constituents?

For her part, Sen. Crawford has at times been admirably transparent about her true motivation in pursuing such legislation. As she disclosed to the cattle trade journal Drovers, “We wanted to protect our cattlemen in Missouri and protect our beef brand.”

In other words, laws banning plant-based food tech companies from using terms like “meat” and “milk” aren’t about protecting consumers from confusion; they’re about protecting cattlemen from competition.

And with the future of our civilization hanging in the balance as climate change becomes more severe, it’s time for policy makers to stop trying to stifle innovation, and instead to celebrate all the ways science can save us, including with sustainable proteins that can and do produce new kinds of meat.

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