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Can a plant-based hamburger, sausage or steak be labelled “meat”? The question has fired up a debate about food labels as United States cattle industry players seed a crackdown on marketing of proteins made from soy and other plant-based substances.
Jessica Almy, policy director of the non-profit Good Food Institute, which promotes meat alternatives, says labels must state clearly whether a product is made from soy or another plant, but they usually make sense in context.
“Regardless of whether it is made of beef, soy, or wheat, a burger tells you it can be cooked on a grill, placed on a bun, and served with mustard and ketchup,” she said.
Almy also sees no alternative to labelling as “meat” new products made from animal cells grown in a laboratory. Such protein offerings are expected to hit supermarkets and speciality shops within the next few years.
“These are muscles and fat. It would be extremely misleading to call it other than meat,” said Almy says.
That stance has enraged some in the traditional meat industry, spurring the US Cattlemen’s Association to file a petition to the US Agriculture Department to reserve the term “meat” or “beef” for protein derived from slaughtered animals.
“Labels indicating that a product is ‘beef’ should be limited to product from cattle that have been born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner,” the petition said.
The cattle association, which represents ranchers and cattle breeders, says it wants to avoid a similar outcome to that in the dairy industry, which has seen alternative products made of soy, almond and other non-dairy sources take 10 per cent of the “milk” market.
“We started seeing these products put into the meat shelves in the grocery stores with packaging, label and design misleading the consumers into believing that perhaps it is a healthier version of the traditional meat or perhaps this is real beef,” says USCA spokeswoman Lia Biondo.
“We are trying to pre-empt the issue, to prevent what the dairy industry is going through.”
For now, alternative meat products represent a tiny portion of protein sales. But the items are becoming more widely used, and not just by vegetarians.
Start-ups in alternative food today offer products that do a much improved job of simulating the taste, texture and smell of traditional meat. Industry players say it is only a matter of time before these options are made with animal cells, further complicating the picture.
While the USCA petition has won some support, not all in the food industry have signed on.
The US Farm Bureau generally supports the idea behind the petition, but does not want oversight of alternative proteins to shift from the Agriculture Department.
“If it is not called meat, what is it, then? We want to retain the jurisdiction under the Secretary of Agriculture,” says Dale Moore, who is in charge of public affairs for the Farm Bureau.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which counts among its members meat distributors and processors, has not signed the petition either.
Chris Kerr, investment manager at New Crop Capital, a venture capital firm investing in alternative food companies, says efforts like the USCA petition illustrate a head-in-the-sand approach to shifting tastes.
“We are looking at a major behavioural shift by a whole segment of the consumer population, driven a lot by the millennials. They are very open to plant-based food, to being flexitarian,” he says.
“The industry can fight this, but they are arguably fighting against themselves because ultimately most meat producers will have some stake in this and it will be a successful outcome.”