Where’s the Beef? States Ban Veggie Burgers From Being Labeled 'Meat'

Lawmakers say they want to clear up confusion over plant-based meat substitutes.

Impossible Burger.
(Impossible Foods)
What is meat? Can it be defined simply as part of an animal that once walked around on four legs, or a bird that walked on two? That’s a political and legal argument that’s playing out now in several states.

Last year, Missouri was the first state to enact a “real meat” law, stating that only animal products could be called meat. Products made from soy would have to be described as “protein textured,” not labeled as “meat” or “meaty.” The makers of vegetarian meat products and animal rights groups sued, on First Amendment and due process grounds. Missouri’s law has been put on hold, pending settlement negotiations.

But farmers and ranchers have been promoting “real meat” laws in several  other states this year. Sales of familiar plant-based products, such as tofu dogs, and newer cell-based products that involve more complicated chemistry, including the so-called Impossible Burger, made largely from soy protein, have been growing rapidly. Burger King and other chains are experimenting with Impossible Burgers, while Del Taco now serves a meatless “meat” taco.

Oren Lesmeister, who sponsored a meat labeling bill in the South Dakota Senate, says such products are unfairly trading on the images and marketing of meat made from animals. “Our point is, if they label it meat, they get to piggyback on and take it for a ride,” Lesmeister says. “If people want to eat it, great. Just don’t call it traditional meat.”

Promoters of vegetarian products say that farmers and ranchers are concerned with trying to protect their brands and sales, not clearing up any consumer confusion. “No one’s confused when they buy veggie sausage,” says Amanda Howell, a staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Forcing them to call it a ‘veggie tube’ is more confusing.”

In all kinds of products, name brands sometimes end up becoming generic and universally familiar. The same might happen with meat products, no matter the legal and political outcomes. Anything shaped like a burger or hot dog could still get called that, both in common parlance and in sales. 

After all, the Food and Drug Administration decided this year to crack down on non-dairy products labeled as “milk,” but the stores are still full of cartons of almond, soy and oat “milk.” “They are deemed to be illegal,” Lesmeister notes, “just no one has prosecuted them.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.