More than a dozen states have introduced label censorship laws saying that products without animals cannot include the word meat on their packaging. Last year, Missouri became the first state to pass such a law.
In an editorial favoring the regulations, the Kansas City Star wrote that the legislation “aims to limit confusion as consumers navigate grocery store aisles filled with a growing number of plant-based products and other meat alternatives that look a whole lot like traditional burgers, hot dogs, turkey and more.” Fines would be assessed for violations.
But is the industry really concerned for the consumer, or is its real concern profit?
In 1906, the Food and Drug Act was passed in large part to stop manufacturers from selling mislabeled — or poisonous — products. At a time when infants were soothed using bottles of syrup with morphine, and heroin tablets were sold for asthma, one cannot underestimate the value of this act. Decades later, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which went into effect in 1967, required that all consumer products be labeled to in part “prevent consumer deception ... with respect to descriptions of ingredients.”
It’s important to practice truth in labeling. However, the meat and dairy industries have continually profited from labels that are meaningless and misleading. When I started my trip toward becoming vegetarian (before resources like the Humane League existed), I relied on labels to guide me through the myriad claims. A quick glance at “free range” for cows and chickens shows the phrase means virtually nothing, with no defined outdoor access or enforcement. Similarly, the term “natural” is as open-ended as the responses you’ll get by asking friends: “What is natural, anyway?”
Attacking competitor labels is not new to the meat, dairy, and egg industries. I wrote a play about it in 2016 called #Comments. My husband and I acted out verbatim selections from the comments sections in articles about a lawsuit brought by Unilever (Hellman’s) against Just Mayo (formerly Hampton Creek). Some commenters suggested that Just call its vegan product “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Mayo” or “Just Good: Mayo-Similar Egg-Free Spread.”
From a marketing perspective, these suggestions are nightmares. But are consumers really that clueless? One commenter summed it up: “I assume Hellman’s Mayonnaise has blue ribbons in it, since that’s what’s on their label?”
Unilever eventually dropped its lawsuit. But another troubling picture emerged when hundreds of pages of correspondence from the American Egg Board revealed a two-year plan to undermine Hampton Creek. The board president wrote that Just Mayo is “a threat to the future of the egg production business,” and the group talked to a consultant who promised to block the vegan mayo from Whole Foods shelves. It also launched a massive PR campaign that pushed egg board talking points in blog posts and elsewhere.
Given that 95% of people demanding plant-based burgers are omnivores, it’s understandable that those profiting from animal confinement feel threatened. While food and agricultural giants Tyson, Nestlé, and Cargill have responded by backing plant-based and clean meats, and KFC is testing vegan chicken this week, others are not as quick to change. Yet they must: A March survey found that 75% of U.S. and U.K. consumers support labeling plant-based meats with terms such as sausage, steak, and burger.
Fortunately, there is pushback against regulations: The American Civil Liberties Union and others filed a lawsuit in Arkansas to challenge meat-labeling laws. It’s clear that bans on the term meat are profit-motivated. The president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation said: “This bill will protect our cattle farmers from having to compete with products not harvested from an animal.” Of clean meat, a Nebraska rancher worried that it “puts me out of business.”
Meanwhile, these industries continue to profit from misleading labels claiming their animals are treated “humanely.” It’s what the labels don’t say that’s important: In the end, animals factory-raised for food are transported and slaughtered with little oversight by exploited underpaid workers. And now, the Amazon rain forest is burning in part due to our high demand for meat. It’s time to embrace plant protein.
This month, Burger King launched its Impossible Whopper nationwide. High demand for these products means that if the meat industry can’t beat us, it should join us.
Instead of trying to censor businesses, learn from Hellman’s: After Unilever’s (failed) lawsuit against Just Mayo, guess what it brought to market? Vegan Hellman’s.
Eleni Vlachos is a drummer for Beloved Binge, a writer at You Big Talker, a filmmaker, half Greek, a part-time manager of communications for the Social Intervention Group, a volunteer for the Humane League, and a newish South Philly resident.