In May, the state of Missouri passed a law that banned plant-based and cellular agriculture (‘cell ag’) products from using the word ‘meat’. According to the bill, meat can only come from the flesh of a slaughtered animal. The law came into effect on August 28, 2018. And so did the fight for the word meat.
The Good Food Institute, along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, and plant-based company Tofurky, sued the state of Missouri to stop the law. I had the opportunity to speak to Amanda Howell, the staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and learn more about the legal ground behind the coalition’s lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the Missouri law violates the first amendment and the right to freedom of speech by preventing the clear and accurate labeling of plant-based and cell ag products as meat. The lawsuit argues that plant-based and cell ag companies use qualifying terms, like plant-based or cell-cultured, to describe and distinguish how their products are different from meat. They do not simply call their products meat.
Besides, according to Howell, it is these qualifying terms that make consumers interested in buying the meat alternatives. Not meat.
This begs the question: what else can these companies call their product? If companies cannot use the word meat (or any meat-derived terms), how else can they clearly inform consumers that their plant-based product intends to taste just like meat?
The Dormant Commerce Clause is a US federal law that prevents states from creating laws that will unfairly burden out-of-state competition to preserve a local industry. The lawsuit states that the new Missouri law discriminates against plant-based and cell ag companies to protect in-state meat producers from competition.
In the law’s current form, plant-based and cell ag meat companies would have to label and package their products differently to comply with state law. The companies may even have to recreate their websites to make sure that Missouri consumers are not exposed to the word ‘meat’ on their websites either. Not only costly, the lawsuit argues this qualifies as an excessive burden targeting out-of-state competitors.
The Missouri Senate and House of Representatives said they passed this law to protect consumers from misleading and confusing food labels. But that is not necessarily true.
According to Howell, federal agencies like the Food and Drug Agency (FDA) have already established regulatory laws that prevent companies from mislabeling their products. These laws allow state and private attorneys to go after companies that falsely advertise their food products. Since these laws are already established, Howell argues that the new Missouri law is unnecessary thanks to existing federal law.
The Impossible Burger by Impossible Foods
Since the FDA has a regulatory framework to go against mislabeled products, it should be noted that the FDA has not taken any action against companies calling their products plant-based meats. While it is still unclear who will regulate cell ag, the FDA’s (lack of) action against the name plant-based meat highlights that the FDA does not have an issue with how these products are labelled.
This lawsuit ultimately comes down to how one defines meat. Is it just a product that consists of animal muscle cells, connective and fat tissues? Or is it specifically derived from the slaughter of an animal? What if you could go beyond the animal and get the same meat from cell cultures? Is that still meat?
With plant-based meat alternatives, this question goes further. Can meat be defined by the taste and texture one expects when eating it? In that case, can a plant-based product that exactly mimics and replicates the taste of animal-derived meat also be called meat? If it tastes the same, is there a difference?
Photo taken from Impossible Foods
The answers to these questions are still uncertain, and the question of naming will continue to be debated. This debate was even brought up during the recent Good Food Conference by the Good Food Institute.
The Good Food Conference is the first conference in the world to focus on the commercialization of both plant-based and cell-cultured meat. During the conference, many cell ag startups announced that they supported Memphis Meats’ regulatory letter with the North American Meat Institute to the White House. In the letter, Memphis Meats announced their plan to call their product cell-based meat instead of clean meat. For good reasons, too.
Photo taken from Memphis Meats
Memphis Meats believe that the name ‘cell-based meat’ will garner more cooperation from the conventional meat industry and US meat regulators. Considering that the Missouri Cattlemen Association helped “propose the language” behind the law in Missouri, more cooperation with the meat industry would be an important step to overcome some of the obstacles ahead for cell ag.
On August 30th, the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a memo stating that the MDA will not go after meat alternative products that have qualifying labels like ‘plant-based’ or ‘veggie’ or ‘lab-grown’ clearly visible on them. Just like how the products already are labelled.
Howell notes, however, that the MDA’s decision is nothing more than nonbinding guidance for an unconstitutionally vague law. Individual prosecutors in Missouri could still target plant-based or cell ag companies and products that use meat-related terms.
It is still early days into this lawsuit and we will keep you posted all of the updates. The outcome of the case will impact whether other states will follow Missouri and also pass regulations over the definition of meat.