|Veggie burgers were living an idyllic little existence. Then they got caught in a war over the future of meat.|
By Laura Reiley
August 25 at 2:35 PM
Tofurky wasn’t keeping cattle ranchers awake at night.
For decades, veggie burgers were the token offering to vegans at the backyard barbecue, and Tofurky was the Thanksgiving benediction to the meat-free loved ones in our lives.
But as plant-based meat goes from an afterthought to a financial juggernaut that aims to change how most people eat, the opposition has suddenly awakened: Many of the country’s 800,000 cattle ranchers have declared war on newcomers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which use technology to make products that hew closely to the taste and texture of meat, and now “first-generation” veggie burgers and similar products are caught in the crossfire.
In 2019, officials in nearly 30 states have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using words such as meat, burger, sausage, jerky or hot dog unless the product came from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered in a traditional way. Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming have already enacted such laws. In Missouri, the first state where the ban took effect, violators incur a $1,000 fine and as much as a year in prison. Mississippi’s new law is sweeping: “Any food product containing cell-cultured animal tissue or plant-based or insect-based food shall not be labeled meat or as a meat product.”
The states, in most cases backed by cattlemen’s associations, claim consumer confusion as the driving force for the laws. The newest offerings, they say, cross a line when they make unsubstantiated health claims (many have long lists of processed ingredients and are high in sodium) and when the packaging is unclear.
“Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles has a picture of a cow on the front and says ‘plant-based’ in very small lettering at the bottom,” said Mike Deering, a cattle rancher and the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. “I’m a dad and I’m going through the grocery store before one of my boys has a meltdown, and [if] I pick up that package that says beef with a picture of a cow on it, I’m going to buy it.”
This isn’t quite a David vs. Goliath fight. The cattle associations have enormous political power, and several of the top veggie brands such as Morningstar Farms and Boca are owned by food giants such as Kellogg and Kraft Heinz. Notably, the major meat processors — Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, for instance — aren’t taking sides, relying on the ranchers for traditional meat but also investing heavily in these new alternatives they believe consumers increasingly desire.
The future of ranching faces a big threat if plant-based meat, thought to be much better for the environment, becomes a mainstay of the American diet.
Traditional animal agriculture is looking to the lessons learned by the dairy industry, which saw cow’s milk sales dwindle by $1.1 billion last year, much of that business scooped up by alternative milks such as almond and oat. And as the stock price of Beyond Meat, which went public this year, has soared, some of the biggest retailers and restaurants in America have got on board with plant-based alternatives.
In September, Impossible Burgers roll out in grocery stores. Subway has announced meatless meatballs, Carl’s Jr. and sister company Hardee’s have gotten on the meatless meat wagon, Dunkin’ introduced its Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich and Burger King expanded the reach of its Impossible Whopper to all franchises.
On July 22, Tofurky joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Good Food Institute (a nonprofit that promotes plant-based meat) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund to file a lawsuit claiming Arkansas’ new labeling law, which went into effect July 24, violates the First and Fourteenth amendments.
“If we lose, there’s something wrong with our judicial system,” said Tofurky chief executive Jaime Athos. “The first thing to get out of the way is that people are confused. It’s all [the cattlemen’s associations] can come up with to censor speech.”
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