Food Freedom

The Beef Lobby's Losing Fight Against Plant-Based 'Meat'

Special interests want the government to protect them from competition.


When you visit a grocery, literal-mindedness is a handicap. Apple butter is actually not a dairy product. Grape-Nuts cereal omits grapes as well as nuts. Corn dogs don't need leashes.

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association, however, is appalled that new forms of protein are being sold under names such as Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger. Vegetarian and vegan substitutes for meat have gained a significant share of the market, partly because of health considerations and partly because of aversion to killing harmless animals for food. But the livestock group fears that consumers are being cruelly misled.

It wants the Department of Agriculture to stop not only the use of these brand names but any term suggesting that there is such a thing as "synthetic beef" or "vegan meat."

It complains that Beyond Meat offers what it calls "a plant-based burger that smells, tastes, looks and even feels like ground beef"—and, if you can imagine, "strategically merchandises its products adjacent to traditional meat in grocery stores." Yet, it notes, these foods are composed entirely of "non-meat ingredients such as 'Pea Protein Isolate,' 'Rice Flour' and 'Yeast Extract.'"

About 8 million Americans are vegetarians, nearly half of whom are also vegans. To anyone who prefers to avoid foods harvested from livestock, it is a convenience to find these humane alternatives next to the original versions. That's why soy and almond milk are stored in the dairy case, where most of the products come from cows.

Some people who grew up drinking milk and eating burgers want to enjoy similar flavors that are derived solely from plants. The more closely the substitutes resemble animal products in taste, texture, and appearance, the likelier they are to sell. The cattlemen's organization, however, waxes indignant that "Beyond Meat's website shows that its burger patties are virtually indistinguishable when sold next to traditional ground beef."

This industry is not the first to try to stifle plant-based competition. Last year, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin ("America's Dairyland") introduced a bipartisan bill titled the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (acronym: DAIRY PRIDE). It would prevent makers of substitutes from using the term "milk." The supporters want the Food and Drug Administration to permit that label only for the "lacteal secretion" of a cow—yum!

The idea is that the government needs to intervene to prevent deception. Baldwin says that "imitations are marketed using the good name of dairy to sell their products." Actually, they use the bad name of dairy—its reliance on the relentless exploitation of sentient creatures—to sell their products.

The beef lobby deploys the same argument. Alternatives, it says, must "not be permitted to be labeled as 'beef,' which is widely understood by consumers to be the flesh of a bovine animal." A prohibition is needed "to eliminate the likelihood of confusion and to better inform consumers."
This is the sort of claim that is hard to make without laughing. Raise your hand if you have ever been at the customer service counter behind someone demanding a refund because his Vegan NOBEEF Strips contained no beef. What the beef and dairy producers want is for the government to protect them from competition.

People buy almond milk not because they think it contains cow's milk but because they know it doesn't. They order veggie burgers in the happy knowledge that no hooved beast was harmed to make them. If you go online in search of vegetarian or vegan foods, you will find such websites as "Fake Meats" and "The Vegetarian Butcher." They are not trying to fool anyone.

The beef and dairy producers have a bigger fear than imitations made from plants. The real long-term threat is milk and meat derived from animals—but grown from cells in a lab. That would allow humans to enjoy traditional foods without the need to feed, confine, kill, or clean up after cattle and other livestock.

"Clean meat" is not commercially viable just yet, but it's already being made. And the cattlemen's group wants the USDA to deny the term "beef" to anything not "harvested in the traditional manner"—that is, from slaughtered cows. Lab-grown seafood is also in the works.

The desires of consumers and the advance of science are converging in a way that is likely to remake our food system. The cattlemen can try to block this unwanted development. But they might as well try to milk a steer.