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The “Beef” With Plant Based “Meat” Product Labels

You clearly know the difference between the meat and vegetables on your plate, right? As society has redefined its views on meat and protein intake, however, you may not be so sure.

Plant based proteins have quickly become the food industry’s most popular new addition. With protein now being processed from non-animal sources, the word “meat” is now at the center of a hotly contested legal debate.  Given the ripeness for litigation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture likely will be forced to provide guidance to manufacturers and consumers regarding the definition of the word “meat” and may look to place limits on how the word may be used on product labels.

What is Plant Protein?

Plant based protein is exactly what it sounds like—food rich in protein made from 100% plant based ingredients such as peas, soy, and other all-natural seasonings. Plant based proteins do not contain any animal products of any kind. Many plant based protein brands are designed to look and taste like meat products that we are familiar with. They are typically made in science labs through “a proprietary system that applies heating, cooling, and pressure to align plant-proteins in the same fibrous structures that you’d find in animal proteins.”

The leading brands charging this plant protein revolution include Beyond Meat and The Impossible Burger, among others. These brands have perfected how to master the precise taste of meat without the negative health implications and environmental hazards, so much so that they are often confused for traditional meat products.

A Plant Protein Planet? 

Plant-based proteins have sky rocketed in popularity as consumers have become increasingly concerned with living a healthier lifestyleanimal welfare, environmental benefits, social responsibility and economic considerations. In fact,

17% of U.S. consumers between the ages of 15 to 70 already claim to eat a primarily plant-based diet, and 60% are attempting to cut back on meat-based products.

The global plant based protein market is predicted to expand to 10,892.3 million USD by 2022, accompanied by a CAGR of 6.7% throughout 2017 through 2022.

Indeed, Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger brands are gaining mainstream traction, being sold in places like Disney WorldTargetTGI FridaysKroger, and Whole Foods.  Celebrity influencers have only added to this shift towards a healthier “meat” product, as Leonardo DiCaprio is a proud investor in Beyond Meat.

 So Who Has the Beef?

In February 2018, the Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “prevent products from being labeled with the words ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ unless they are made from a slaughtered animal.” The Cattlemen’s Association argues that using the words “meat” or “beef” on packaging is misleading to consumers when they are sold products that look like “meat” or “beef” but are actually made with plant based protein.

Supporters of the plant protein craze counter that consumers are more than capable of distinguishing between a beef made with animal product and beef made with plant based protein–especially when the ingredients  omit any references to animal products.

Who’s With Them?

With meat being a $67.56 billion industry in the United States, one would expect Big Meat to push back hard on its unlikely competitor.  But the Cattlemen Association may not have as many allies as one would expect.

Indeed, rather than fighting the plant based protein industry, many meat companies have chosen to embrace it. Both Tyson Foods, the largest US meat processor, and Cargill, the largest US private agricultural company, have recently invested in plant based protein companies banking on their success.   With category leaders taking these steps to hedge against lost market share, other major manufacturers are likely to follow suit.

Sound Familiar?

In 2017, 25 bipartisan members of Congress filed a petition to the Food and Drug Administration arguing that milk made from soybeans, almond, or rice should not be labeled as milk. They urged that plant-based milk companies should use a different name so as to not deceive consumers. This came on the heels of a 40% drop in milk prices, as plant based milk products have jumped in popularity. As of September of 2017, the FDA announced that they had not yet reached a decision.

Trends of the Future

Both “milk” and “meat” petitions demonstrate that change to the status quo of the food industry spurs controversy. The Cattlemen’s Association petition will prompt an inevitable uptick in litigation. “Meat” and “beef” will be a new area of focus for government regulators, as plaintiffs lawyers look for fertile ground for civil class action litigation.

The legal battles will also extend beyond deceptive labeling issues. Jessica Almy, policy director at Good Food Institute believes that this petition may have First Amendment implications because it asks the government to regulate the type of commercial speech allowed on products outside of the FDA requirements for nutrition labeling.

All things considered, the plant based protein industry may welcome the attention. Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, believes the Cattlemen’s Association petition will help his business by starting the national dialogue and increasing consumer awareness of his product and its health benefits.

© 2019 Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP


About this Author

Lori Lustrin, Mortgage Attorney, Bilzin Sumberg Law Firm

Lori Lustrin is an associate in Bilzin Sumberg's Litigation Group. Lori’s practice focuses on antitrust and federal multidistrict class actions. She also has substantial experience in a broad range of complex business litigation matters, including intellectual property disputes, landlord-tenant disputes, land use litigation, bankruptcy litigation, employment disputes, professional malpractice actions, unfair and deceptive trade practices issues, fraud claims, defamation suits, products liability matters, and international arbitrations. Lori’s varied practice has allowed...

Jennifer Junger Commercial LItigator Bilzin Sumberg Law Firm

Jennifer focuses her practice on commercial litigation. At George Washington University Law School, Jennifer was selected to participate in the Family Justice Litigation Clinic, where she was certified by the D.C. Court of Appeals to appear in court on Family Law matters. During law school, Jennifer served as a clerk for the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, as well as for the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Department of Justice. Jennifer also worked as a law clerk for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

What was your most rewarding experience in law school?

As a participant in GW Law School's Family Justice Litigation Clinic, I guided self-petitioners through Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitions. VAWA was implemented to protect victims of domestic abuse from having their spouses use their immigration status to control, manipulate and abuse them. Lack of legal status is often used as a tool of power and control in abusive relationships, particularly if the person's status depends on their relationship to their U.S. citizen or lawful resident abuser. I represented pro bono clients in gaining eligibility to work in the United States, which is the first step for them to gain legal status in the U.S. independent of their abusers.

What volunteer work has made you especially proud?

Between college and law school I served as a Teach for America Corp member. I taught special education and algebra to high school students in a low-income and under-resourced neighborhood. Teach for America's goal is to change the world of education by putting engaging, dedicated, and motivated people into schools that need help. Even though I did not remain in education, my experience teaching had as large an impact on me as it did on the students I taught. My students are in college now, and I keep in touch with many of them. Continuing to mentor them and seeing their accomplishments as young adults is something that I am very proud of.