Vegan food companies are fighting back against laws that bar them from labelling their products "meat."
In case you haven't heard, they're making meat out of plants. Burgers out of soy and coconut. Fried chicken out of jackfruit. Steaks out of "cooked wheat gluten."
Brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have expanded into fast food, infiltrating chains like Burger King and Dunkin' with meatless patties and breakfast sausage.
Meat people — that's animal meat people, meaning ranchers and farmers and their lobbyists — say the competition is welcome. But, in 24 states this year, they have worked to pass legislation to make it illegal for plant-based food to be called meat. The measures' supporters don't want vegan or vegetarian food items to be called burgers, steaks or dogs.
In Louisiana, Francis Thompson, a Democratic state senator who sponsored a bill banning meat words, said in session that the issue had gone unchecked for far too long. "Broccoli is not rice," he said. "And certainly tofu burgers are not meat."
In Arkansas, David Hillman, a Republican state representative, was more evocative: "I want my rib-eye steak to have been walking around on four feet at one time or another."
Now, the alternative meat-makers are fighting back. This week, a group of plaintiffs that includes the maker of Tofurky filed a lawsuit in Arkansas. They argue that the state's law violates the First and 14th Amendments and condescends to consumers who understand what is meant when "burger" is modified by the word "veggie."
Tofurky and Upton's Naturals have also filed suits in Missouri and Mississippi, with the support of the advocacy organisations The Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association. The ACLU is also involved.
"There's just limited words in the English language to convey a concept that the consumer already understands," said Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. "If you want to convey something tastes like bacon, what do you do? Do you say it's salty and fatty and, wink wink, piglike? The point is that we should not have to engage in linguistic gymnastics."
Many of the laws also forbid using meat words to describe lab-grown meat, despite the fact that lab-grown meat is made from animal cells. (These products are still very much in development and are not sold commercially.)
The laws in Louisiana and Arkansas also limit the use of the word "rice." (Both are top rice-producing states.) It's putting products like cauliflower rice — which is cauliflower, "riced" — in the crosshairs.
Michael Klein, a spokesman for the USA Rice Federation, called such food items "rice pretenders."
"We don't want to be portrayed as trying to run these products out of town," he said. "The issue is, let's just call it what it is. Don't market your products on our good name."
Andy Gipson, the commissioner of Mississippi's Agriculture and Commerce Department, said in a statement that his state's law was just common sense. "Words mean something," he said.
The vegan resistance
Miyoko Schinner has been selling a cheeselike product made of cashews since 2014. The state of California prohibited her from calling it "vegan cheese." She resigned herself to calling it "cultured nut product," and for four years, cultured nut product it was.
"It was sort of a vegan secret," she said. "If you were part of the vegan cult then you knew that the 'cultured nut product' meant cheese." Her company used other phrasings — calling one product Aged English Sharp Farmhouse, for example — in an effort to evoke the banned term.
Then, at the dawn of 2018, Schinner decided she couldn't be a cultured-nut-product-monger any longer. She started labelling her wares as vegan cheese. It was, she said, "absolutely" an act of civil disobedience.
"We are civilly disobeying every step along the way at this point," she said.
Producers like Schinner say that it's important for them to use words that people recognize on their packaging. It helps producers appeal to new customers and can convince vendors to sell the products next to those they resemble. In the early 2000s, alternative milks were placed near their cow-derived counterparts, and sales began to grow. (According to data commissioned by The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association, alternative milks make up 13 per cent of the fluid milk market.)
"That move completely changed the category," said Caroline Bushnell, an associate director at The Good Food Institute.
This has been upsetting to dairy farmers, who were already struggling before the alternative milk industry explosion. Although trade is perhaps more to blame for dairy farmers' struggles, alternative milks have become an industry bugbear.
The US meat industry is far more stable. (In 2018, Americans were expected to eat a record-setting volume of meat.) But its producers have taken notice of the milkman's troubles. Andy Berry, the executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association, said that his members "looked at where dairy was 20 years ago and there's a consensus that no one wants to end up where dairy is with these alternative products." (At the moment, plant-based meat is roughly 1 per cent of the market.)
While the meat-labelling laws differ from state to state, suggesting that no one entity is behind them, talking points seem to have crossed state lines.
Lauren Waldrip Ward, the executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation, compared her alternative-rice-hawking competitors to used car salesmen. "You can't put a Cadillac sticker on a Kia and sell it as a Cadillac," she said. Mike Deering, the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, offered a similar analogy. "You can't put a Corvette sticker on a Chevrolet and call it a Corvette," he said. And Berry, well, his family was actually in the Chevrolet business. "Not in any point in my time did my grandfather, my father or myself stick a Corvette sticker on the side of a Malibu," he said.
Call meat maybe
In general, studies suggest that plant-based foods — even highly processed plant-based meat alternatives — have a smaller environmental footprint than traditional meat production. (Livestock are responsible for, roughly, 14.5 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions each year, and cows, used for both meat and dairy, are responsible for the most livestock emissions.) But as Vox recently reported, the scalability of the alternative meats industry, which is still a niche, will determine whether it can make any significant environmental contribution.
When it comes down to it, said Berry of the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association, he's genuinely impressed by the newcomers, and in particular, with the advances made in lab-grown meat. In a radio interview with SuperTalk Mississippi earlier this year, he called it "wonderful science."
"We don't have a problem as livestock producers with these products," he said. "But it's not meat, it's not beef."
But vegans and vegetarians insisted that the word "meat" does not refer solely to the flesh of dead animals. The first definition of the word in Webster's New World College Dictionary is "food, especially solid food as distinguished from drink," although it calls that usage archaic.
"It is meat, it's just nut meat," said Monica Stoutenborough, the owner of PuraVegan Cafe & Yoga, in St. Louis. Her cafe makes a sprouted seed-and-nut sausage. "It's not flesh meat. But it's nut meat!" she said.
Freya Dinshah, the president of the American Vegan Society, agreed.
"We've had nut meats for decades, if not centuries," she said. "We've had coconut milk since probably the beginning of time and if they want to be explicit they can say cow milk and we can say soy milk. The dairy industry thinks they've got the corner on milk.
This milk is nuts
Since 1938, the federal government has been authorised to create and maintain definitions of food products. It does not enforce many of them. These definitions are called "standards of identity."
For example, the "cherry content" of frozen cherry pies, according to the federal definition, must not be less than 25 per cent of the weight of the pie. (And no more than 15% of the cherries involved may be blemished.) Likewise, the standard for French dressing restricts innovation with very specific oil-to-acid ratios. (The Association for Dressings and Sauces "would like to see the French dressing standard of identity repealed," the organisation said in a statement to The New York Times.)
The standard of identity for milk states right off the bat that milk is "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." Last year, Scott Gottlieb, then the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that the agency would soon review its standards for milk. (He also, infamously, declared "an almond doesn't lactate." He now serves on the board of directors of Pfizer.)
Plant-based food people argue that standards of identity lead to other absurdities.
Beefsteak tomatoes, for example, could be impacted by the Missouri legislation, as that law prohibits "misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry."
In the case of Louisiana, Jessica Almy, the director of policy at The Good Food Institute, argued that rice noodles could have a similar problem. Because they're made of rice, not wheat, they don't meet the US government's technical definition of noodles.
The makers of rice noodles are not particularly worried. "We appreciate the opportunity to address the new Louisiana Senate Bill 152," said Tiina Henkusens, the regulatory affairs director in North America for McCormick & Co. Inc., a company that makes rice noodles under its Thai Kitchen brand. "Thai Kitchen Rice Noodles are made with only Rice and Water as indicated on the ingredient statement. Rice Noodles appropriately describes the product."
Food identity politics
Ultimately, these semantic squabbles are about marketing. They're not being fought by consumers.
"This is basically a fight between two industry sectors," said Simon of the Plant Based Foods Association. "We didn't pick the fight. Meanwhile, what is the consumer doing? They're happily enjoying their meat and dairy alternatives."
When Stoutenborough opened the PuraVegan cafe in 2011, she said it was the only vegan restaurant in St. Louis. The cafe received prank phone calls with meat jokes, people pretending that they wanted to order steaks. Potential customers did not even know how to pronounce "vegan." (They rhymed it with pagan.)
"Now we don't have to tell people how to say it anymore," Stoutenborough said.
She said that she understood where the traditional meat producers were coming from; change is always uncomfortable. But she was not worried about the Missouri law and did not expect vegan progress to cease.
"What people eat on this planet is changing," she said. "And when things change, some things flourish but some things don't."
Written by: Jonah Engel Bromwich and Sanam Yar
Photographs by: Tala Safie and Jeenah Moon
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES