By Jacy Reese
What’s in a name? That which we call a plant-based meat by any other name would taste as sweet. But there’s a lot to a name when the labeling seen in your local grocery story could be punishable with jail time. In Mississippi, a new law that bans plant-based meat providers from using such labels as “veggie burger” or “vegan hot dog” on their products has gone into effect. The argument is that said labels confuse consumers, which actually isn’t the case; it has more to do with getting rid of competition. Consumers know what they’re buying. Just take it from Jacy Reese. In this passage from his book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, he argues that we should call a veggie burger a veggie burger. More importantly, he also points out that the terminology we use should signal social information about the products we eat.
One roadblock that is probably slowing down mainstream acceptance of plant-based products, even artisan ones, is labeling. When the California Department of Public Health inspected Schinner’s production facility, the agent saw that the product was labeled only according to flavor, such as Aged English Fresh Farmhouse. It couldn’t be categorized as cheese, so the agent asked her for the actual name of the product. Schinner, on the spot, decided to call it a cultured nut product.
While this was a snap decision, it has stuck, though Schinner is now moving toward mainstream dairy titles for her products when possible. For example, when her company launched its first butter in 2016, the name was unabashedly European Style Cultured Vegan Butter. This name does include the word “vegan,” but that more reflects Schinner’s desire to “hold the vegan banner high” than reservation about using the term “butter” alone.
Plant-based milk producers are already facing legal challenges. The standard of identity for milk defines it as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
These laws are necessary to help consumers easily identify different food products. If there were no criteria defining what makes ketchup, for example, we would have to constantly watch out for companies trying to peddle ketchup products made with improper ingredients or production methods.
In 2011, two Spanish businessmen were sentenced to prison for selling “olive oil” that was actually 70–80 percent sunflower oil. In 2008, Chinese fraudsters added water to cow’s milk used to produce infant formula while using the chemical melamine to increase the apparent protein content of the formula when tested. Nearly three hundred thousand babies fell ill, approximately fifty-three thousand were hospitalized, and six died. Eleven countries stopped dairy imports from China after the incident.
Such profit-driven food crimes are good reasons to enforce strict labeling standards. But the animal agriculture industry has also tried to twist the intent of these laws to drive up their own profits. Take “soy milk,” for example. This is an established product name that identifies a white, milky beverage made from soy. I’ve never heard anyone wonder whether “soy milk” refers to soy-flavored cow’s milk. Nonetheless, the dairy industry is waging a campaign to prevent plant-based milk producers from using “milk” to describe products such as soy and almond milk. They want the standard of identity enforced, seemingly just because it would harm their upstart competitor. It also seems the cow’s milk industry is willing to throw other animal products under the bus: because the definition of milk specifies that it must come from a cow, the implication is that the beverage that comes from goat udders needs to be called something like goat juice.
These labeling efforts are supported by US congressional representatives from high dairy production states. As of this writing, they have received little support from other legislators, but this serves as a reminder of how industry affects policy and should make us hopeful about the support we can obtain for animal-free meat, dairy, and eggs once they become significant parts of at least some state economies.
The fact is that the public’s perception of “milk” is no longer aligned with its outdated legal definition, and food standards should be updated to reflect that. When the media reported on the 2016 and 2017 efforts by US congresspersons from agricultural states to enforce the strict definition of the term, they spent less time in their articles discussing the proposed rule change than they did on the growing popularity of plant-based milks. An article by the Los Angeles Times editorial board used the headline “Got ‘Milk’? Dairy Farmers Rage Against Imitators but Consumers Know What They Want,” and Yahoo! Finance reported, “Dairy Farmers Are Losing the Battle over ‘Milk.’”
In 2015, there was 9 percent growth in plant-based milk compared to a 7 percent decrease in dairy milk sales, making the plant-based milk market 10 percent the size of conventional milk. The dairy industry feels threatened, and it’s lashing out by any means possible.
In the meat market, the leading plant-based products have nutritional and culinary profiles quite similar to animal-based products. Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, argues that it makes sense to call his products “meat.” In an interview with TV personality Dr. Oz, he explained: “We like to use the language of plant-based meat, and what we’re doing is, we’re taking all of the core constituent parts of meat. We’re taking those directly from plants: basically protein, fat, and water. We’re assembling those in the architecture of meat or muscle, and we’re providing it to consumers in that form. So they’re getting a piece of meat in terms of its constituent parts. It just doesn’t come from an animal.”
The only differences, Brown argues, will be the nutritional benefits of the Beyond Burger. For example, it lacks cholesterol, which despite being a common feature of animal meat, has no noticeable impact on taste or texture.
There’s also historical and contemporary precedent for using terms like “meat” outside of animal products, such as coconut meat, nut meat, and even the “meat of the matter” to refer to the substance of an issue. We also say “peanut butter” and “cocoa butter,” terms that certainly aren’t confusing consumers. To refer to plant-based meats as “fake” or “alternative” is not more accurate; it implies that animal-based meats are the gold standard in a way that doesn’t properly reflect the ethical, health, and taste considerations, and doesn’t reflect the commonsense use of the relevant terms. In fact, a few years or decades down the road, we can hope to see labels and terminology that help consumers understand the harms of animal-based foods, similar to the cautionary text on cigarette cartons. We’ve already seen some restrictions on the misleading positive labels like “humanely raised,” though this is usually done without an explicit label, such as with picturesque farm images that in no way actually reflect the appearance of the vast majority of modern farms.
Overall, I think there’s a good case for calling the Beyond Burger “meat” without qualification. However, it would be concerning to me at this time if companies called soy milk, almond milk, and especially a product with a significantly different nutritional profile like coconut milk—tasty as it is—simply “milk” without identifying the plant it’s derived from. But remember, that’s not important for the current debate over the term, which concerns products such as those that are labeled “almond milk” and have pictures of almonds on the packaging. In those cases, it seems clear that consumers know what they’re buying and the dairy industry is simply trying to hassle a competing industry in an effort to bolster its tumbling sales. If the dairy industry has a genuine concern that consumers are missing out on protein, I’d note that the average American consumes far more than the Recommended Daily Allowance of protein, around 145 percent the RDA for women and 176 percent for men.
We should also consider that our terminology is a way for producers to convey important social information about their product. By using “meat” to refer to plant-based foods with the same taste, texture, mouthfeel, and nutritional profile as animal flesh, we are telling people that they can get all those features without the animal cruelty, environmental devastation, and negative health impacts.
At the time of this writing, Beyond Meat labels its burgers as plant-based without using the term “meat.” Ethan Brown told me that the company’s current focus is on perfecting the product, and once it does that and public opinion data shows consumers are on board with this use of the term, they might switch. This seems like the right call because consumers are still getting familiar with plant-based meats, and regulatory issues at this stage would be a big hassle. As the industry establishes itself and public attitudes shift, updated labeling will be an important stepping-stone on the path toward an animal-free food system.
About the Author
Jacy Reese is the research director and cofounder of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching the most effective strategies for expanding humanity’s moral circle. He previously served as board chair and a researcher at Animal Charity Evaluators. Reese’s writing has appeared in Vox, Salon, and the Huffington Post, and he has presented his research to academic and nonprofit audiences in fifteen countries. Follow him on Twitter at @jacyreese and visit his website.