Things used to be so simple. Meat used to cover products that came from slaughtered animals, and everything else was, uh, not meat. But now the lines are blurred — and the meat industry is pissed about it.

This weekend the New York Times ran a story about pushback from animal agriculture industry groups against use the use of the term “meat” to describe any sausage, chop, or burger made from plants or grown in a petri dish — in short, anything that didn’t come from a slaughtered animal. Just this week, Arizona and Arkansas joined the over a dozen states that have introduced meat labeling bills.

The first law of this sort was passed last May in Missouri. The law prohibited companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” A few months after it passed, a coalition led by Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union and others challenged the new law.

The debate isn’t just limited to the butcher counter. In July of last year FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that his agency would start tightening regulations over what could and couldn’t be called “milk.”

On the surface, this pushback may seem a little bit petty. After all, the U.S. meat industry was worth $4.2 trillion in 2016 and show no signs of slowing down, while plant-based meat netted a comparatively tiny $670 million in 2018. Why does Big Meat care what vegan burgers call themselves?

In short, they care because they’re threatened. From 2017 to 2018, demand for plant-based meat rose a whopping 24 percent. To meet that demand we’ve seen an explosion of plant-based meat options, many of which do a pretty dang good job imitating meat thanks to new technologies like genetically modified heme or new protein extrusion methods. On top of that, companies like Beyond Meat are pushing to have their products displayed in the meat aisle of grocery stores.

Plant-based meat is no longer a fringe product for hippies — it’s now a legitimate competitor for traditional meat. And animal agriculture groups know it.

Once cell-based meat comes to market, the issue of what defines “meat” will become even more pressing. No matter how bloody or juicy the taste, plant-based burgers are still fundamentally not made of animals. Cell-based (or cultured) meat, however, is actual animal tissue — that just happens to have been made in a bath of serum, not a slaughterhouse. And some cultured meat companies have made the point that cell-based fish and pork must be labeled as “fish” and “pork” for both allergy and transparency reasons.

Finless Foods is creating cultured bluefin tuna [Taylor Grote vis Upsplash]

It’s hard to make the argument that meat made from actual animal muscle and fat cells should be called anything other than “meat.” (The USDA will have the final say on how to label cell-based meat.) However, adding qualifiers seems to make a lot of sense, both for plant-based and cultured meat. Not only to appease the cattlemen, but also for consumers.

Nebraska Democratic state senator Carol Blood, a vegan, was inspired to write a meat-labeling bill after she witnessed two women who were unclear over whether or not Beyond Meat contained animal tissue. “I don’t care that it says burger — I care that it says it’s meat,” Ms. Blood said in the New York Times.

The fact that meat alternatives are, well, alternative to meat is one of their main selling points. It would follow, then, that these companies would want to call out the fact that their products are not made from slaughtered animals. At the same time, plant-based meat companies are trying to draw in flexitarian consumers by making products that taste just as good as meat, without the animal.

Do you see how easy it is to spin yourself up into a tangled mess of meat labeling confusion?

There isn’t a clear-cut answer here, but I for one am team let-alternatives-call-themselves-meat-if-they-want — as long as they add a qualifier like “plant-based” or “cultured” so that the consumer is clear on what they’re buying.

Instead of putting their energy into pushing for labeling crackdowns, meat industry players would do well to take a page from Tyson’s and Cargill’s books and invest in their competition. (In fact, Tyson is reportedly developing its own line of plant-based “meats.”) It won’t solve the meat labeling question, but by having a stake in the meat alternatives game could help ease tensions in a future that’s only going to get more and more complicated.

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  1. When I worked in a restaurant in the 80s the nuts came in a box labeled “Nut Meats.” Meat is a term that was used historically to refer to the bulk of a substance.

  2. Senator Carol Blood of Nebraska has said she is a vegetarian. She is not a vegan. I question her story about the “two women” in the grocer’s market. She has introduced this bill to protect the ranchers and animal ag industry because of the success of the plant-based foods industry. You don’t pass laws to intentionally put other businesses out of business, especially when you’ve joined forces with other private businesses to do that. There’s a Federal law against that. It’s called RICO.

  3. I am all for accurate labels across the board on all foods. Beef (cow) mixture’ (name of item-ground) boxes for chemicals used in the cleaning of the animal, drugs given during life so people know what they are eating, processing plant/method used so the consumer can decide. Whether the meat has anything added for appearances. Date processed, date packaged. Label with safe temperature to prepare just like other foods, a nutrition box just like other foods. Same with milks, burgers. Milk-cow, milk-almond…. The name describes the product not the ingredient. Ingredients are listed separately. Serving size is for nutrition count not the amount recommended to eat. Let’s learn to be accurate with our labels so we can make informed choices.

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