Over the last few years, meat companies around the world have been making headlines for their ventures into the world of plant-based protein. In 2020, the world’s largest meat supplier, Brazil’s JBS, launched its first line of meat alternatives. That same year, Cargill, one of North America’s largest beef processors, did the same. A year later, America’s largest poultry producer, Tyson Foods, released its own line of fully plant-based products to take advantage of this rapidly growing food segment (after a failed attempt at selling consumers on blended animal and plant protein products in 2019). But while meat companies are dabbling in the plant protein market, a deeper look into the tactics of the meat and dairy industries reveals they may be doing more to undermine the growth of plant-based alternatives.
Just as vegan brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were surging in popularity at grocery stores and fast-food outlets across North America, the meat and dairy lobbies began taking aim at plant protein products. In 2019, Arkansas tried to make it illegal to call a veggie burger a “burger,” and Louisiana brought in the Truth in Labeling of Food Products Act. In 2020, Oklahoma enacted the Meat Consumer Protection Act, and most recently, legislators in Texas approved a ban on the use of “meat” and “beef” on the labels of plant-based food products. The laws are reportedly meant to protect consumers by ensuring that products derived from plants cannot be confused with those derived from animals.
Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, says much of the force behind these labelling laws comes from the meat, dairy and egg lobbies – or the so-called barnyard lobby. “They are all worried,” she says, and “the only legal hook they really have is to challenge the labelling.”
The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association helped draft the first law in the U.S. that banned companies from labelling products as “meat” that aren’t from slaughtered livestock and poultry. The Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association also lobbied for its state law, to “protect consumers from confusion.”
“What we’ve seen is companies who are trying to deceive consumers with plant-based products and try to sell those products as a meat alternative, but not doing so with a clear labelling,” Michael Kelsey, executive vice-president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, told High Plains Public Radio in 2021.
But are consumers really being misled? Research shows that letting plant-based food companies use words such as “beef,” “bologna” and “butter” to label their products doesn’t cause confusion among consumers. A 2021 study from Cornell University found that “consumers are no more likely to think that plant-based products come from an animal if the product’s name incorporates words traditionally associated with animal products than if it does not.” The study concluded that “omitting words traditionally associated with animal products from the names of plant-based products actually causes consumers to be significantly more confused about the taste and uses of these products.”
The only legal hook they really have is to challenge the labelling.
-Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School
Turtle Island Foods, which goes by the name Tofurky Co., took both Missouri and Arkansas to court. The company was denied its bid at a preliminary injunction in Missouri but won in Arkansas. Said Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos in a statement after the law was struck down, “What’s really going on here is that the state of Arkansas is seeking to limit access to healthier, more sustainable food choices for its constituents, and it is doing so to benefit the animal agriculture industry.”
Tofurky Co. is now suing the state of Oklahoma over its labelling law, with the help of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). Nicole Negowetti, vice-president of policy and food systems at PBFA, tells Corporate Knights that “attempts to restrict the labelling of plant-based foods are intended to curtail the explosive and sustainable growth of plant-based foods.”
Negowetti argues that having different labelling rules in different states also makes the sale of plant-based products unnecessarily burdensome. “Labelling restrictions are costly for plant-based food companies and present potential obstacles to consumer acceptance,” she adds. “If a plant-based food company is compelled to create custom labels on a state-by-state basis, they may be deterred from selling their foods in certain areas.”
In the last five years, American meat producers and lobby groups spent nearly US$23 million on lobbying efforts, according to OpenSecrets. Tyson Foods and WH Group, the owner of Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the United States, top that list. Over the same period, dairy companies and associated lobby groups spent more than US$33 million on lobbying. Of course, both sectors lobby about a wide variety of industry-related issues, but a 2021 study out of New York University (NYU) found that between 2000 and 2020, meat and dairy and other agricultural sectors also invested US$750 million supporting campaigns of political candidates. The campaign of Republican Senator Deb Fischer, a rancher who introduced the Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully (MEAT) Act in 2019 (it didn’t pass), received more than US$26,000 from the meat industry between 2016 and 2020, also according to OpenSecrets.
Notably, the meat and dairy lobby may now have additional support from the top. In February of this year, the U.S. Senate confirmed a new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Robert Califf, who during his nomination hearing was asked about plant-based alternatives using dairy terms. He responded, “There is almost nothing more fundamental about safety than people understanding exactly what they’re ingesting.” Within days of being confirmed in the role, numerous dairy industry groups offered public congratulations and urged the commissioner to help stop the “mislabelling” of dairy alternative products.
Attempts to restrict the labelling of plant-based foods are intended to curtail the explosive and sustainable growth of plant-based foods.
—Nicole Negowetti, vice-president, Plant Based Foods Association
The NYU study also found that 10 major meat and dairy companies engaged in research that minimizes the link between animal agriculture and climate change. Three firms – Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield – went even further, supporting “countermovement organizations” or similar groups that play down the link between agriculture and climate change.
Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental science at NYU, says the meat lobby is weaponizing research. He points to a growing number of researchers who have been funded by the meat, dairy and egg industries to conduct studies that question claims that plant-based foods typically come with a lower carbon footprint than animal products.
The meat, dairy and egg industry “is funding research directly, or funding researchers who are sympathetic to industry aims, or are antagonistic toward messages that defy industry interests like reducing [meat] consumption,” Hayek says. “Existing research is cherry-picked to develop and support industry narratives while ignoring other studies,” he adds. “This isn’t how science works.”
Nonetheless, some plant advocates believe that meat producers can be a positive force in this space. “Our pitch to the big meat companies is ‘Don’t be Kodak; be Canon,’” says Bruce Friedrich, founder and CEO of the Good Food Institute. “Don’t dig in on a 12,000-year-old technology. Embrace new ways of making meat.”
Friedrich says that he’s optimistic that he can work with the industry to transform rather than disrupt the way meat is made. “We welcome more plant-based options on the market to meet growing consumer demand,” says Negowetti. “All companies can play a role in creating a food system that’s fit for purpose.”
Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer covering animal rights and welfare and plant-based food topics. She is also a co-host of the Canadian animal law podcast Paw & Order.