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In 2018, Missouri became the first state to ban the use of the word “meat” (and related adjectives) on product labels for plant-based and cell-based meat alternatives (think veggie burgers and what will, someday, be meat cultivated in a lab from animal cells).
Now Virginia and several other states are considering similar legislation. Critics say these laws violate the free speech rights of the companies that manufacture plant-based and meat-alternative products, while proponents of the law advocate for “truth in advertising” on labels.
So what constitutes “meat”? And while there may be no confusion about “veggie burgers” or “tofu dogs” not containing any meat, what about proteins made in a lab from cells harvested from animals that will be identical to traditional meat on a molecular level?
Produced by Monna Kashfi
- Jessica Almy Director of Policy, The Good Food Institute; @JessicaAlmy
- Mark Dopp Senior Vice-President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs/General Counsel, North American Meat Institute
- Richard Williams Author and Former Director of Social Science at the Food and Drug Administration; @RAWilliamsFood
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast two local black journalists on diversity in the newsroom, but first in 2018, Missouri became the first state to ban the use of the word "meat" on product labels for plant-based proteins and lab grown meat products. Think veggie burgers that will someday soon be meat cultivated in a lab from animal cells.
KOJO NNAMDIVirginia and a half a dozen other states are considering similar legislation sparking debate about 1st Amendment rights for the companies that make these products and consumer confusion about what they're putting on their dinner plates. Joining us to dig deeper into this debate is Jessica Almy. She's Director of Policy at The Good Food Institute. Jessica, thank you for joining us.
JESSICA ALMYThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIRichard Williams is Former Director of Social Science at the Food and Drug Administration. He's writing a book about the FDA. Richard Williams, thank you for joining us.
RICHARD WILLIAMSThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Mark Dopp is Senior Vice-President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs and General Counsel at the North American Meat Institute. Mark Dopp, thank you for joining us.
MARK DOPPHappy to be here.
NNAMDII'm going to pose the central question to all three of you. Should plant-based meat alternatives like vegan chicken tenders and cell based meat products be allowed to use the word "meat" on their packaging? Jessica, I'll start with you.
ALMYYes. Absolutely, what else would you call these products? A veggie burger or a plant-based chicken nugget is a chicken nugget that's made out of plants and that's the most direct way to communicate to consumers. These terms tell consumers what the product is. It's made out of plants. And it also tells them what they can expect in terms of taste and texture. And so it's appropriate for them to be called this. But most importantly even if you disagree, it's not the government's place to restrict that speech.
DOPPWell, I disagree. We're sort of missing the point at least in part. We're ignoring the fact that the federal government has already defined meat in not to get too wonky on you. But 9CFR301.2, there is a definition established by the department of agriculture as to what constitutes meat. So let me just say upfront, one of the questions that needs to be asked is not whether this is a 1st Amendment issue. But whether the state bills that are being out there that are either Missouri or the ones that are being considered are preempted. Even if they pass, they won't be in effect. That's a different issue.
DOPPNow, when we're talking about the plant-based, there's a distinction between plant-based and cell-based. I think the preemption pretty clearly applies with respect to the state laws when it comes to cell-based. I don't think preemption applies, in fact, I know it doesn't apply on the plant-based. And I think that's where I probably disagree with Jessica, because, again, you can't call something meat if it's plant-based, because it doesn't meet the definition of meat under federal law.
WILLIAMSI absolutely think they should be allowed to be called meat. I think this whole naming convention stuff goes back to the 1930s when we were concerned about people adding poisons to food. We were concerned about them adding saw dust.
NNAMDISaw dust actually tastes pretty good, but, go ahead.
WILLIAMSExactly. But we also wanted to preserve food the way mother used to make. That was the words that we used. And this goes back to the 1930s. Today mothers don't make food any more like they used from scratch. So these are really old regulations. And my main problem particularly with FDA and the USDA getting involved with this is this is a huge waste of resources.
WILLIAMSJust recently, the Commissioner announced that FDA was going to spend an entire year trying to decide if almond milk should be allowed to be called milk. And they're doing this in the face of food safety outbreaks and huge nutritional problems in this country. So I think it's something the federal government simply just shouldn't be involved with.
NNAMDIJessica, before we go on, tell us what cell-based meat is, more commonly known as lab grown meat, in case people are not familiar with that term.
ALMYSure. Cell-based meat is meat that's grown directly from cells. So it's animal meat that's grown outside of the animal. It's sometimes called cultured meat or clean meat. And it is basically -- the process is that you take a few cells from a living animal.
NNAMDIDo a biopsy.
ALMYRight, a biopsy the size of a sesame seed. So really tiny and then you grow those cells. You feed them the basic building blocks that the animal itself would use. So salt, sugar, fats. To grow those cells outside of the animal and to create tissue that is meat. So this is muscle, fat directly from animal cells grown outside the animal. Of course, it's not on the market yet, but it's close.
ALMYWell, that's a good question. The Good Food Institute is a non-profit organization that is enthusiastic about this type of technology. But we don't represent the companies and I'm not a company. But I think if you look to some of the experts in this field, among them are Dr. Mark Post, who created the first cell-based hamburger and Dr. Uma Valeti, who heads up Memphis Meats, which is one of the leading companies in this space in California.
ALMYThey both projected -- you know, a couple of years ago they said it would be about five years to market. And then maybe another five so that it reaches price parody with the conventional meat that's on the market. So I wouldn't be surprised to see these in a few years on supermarket shelves or in restaurants.
NNAMDIRichard, what benefits could cell-based meats offer over conventional meat? And why would people choose it over traditional meat?
WILLIAMSWell, I think one of the reasons that people are going to choose it over traditional meat is, because of the concerns that people have. It's not just price, convenience, and taste anymore. People are concerned about the environment. Cell-based meat offers, as does plant-based meat, offers less water, use of animal feed, less runoff. For nutrition you can make cell-based meat that has more protein less saturated fat. For safety, you're not going to be using antibiotics. You're less likely to contain pathogens. And we're not going to be so much worried about transmissible viruses.
WILLIAMSFor fish, it will be sustainable. But finally, for a lot of people, it's the animal welfare that they're concerned about. So an interesting statistic I read recently is that 90 percent of Americans eat meat. But 47 percent of the Americans think you ought to do away with slaughter houses. Well, how is that going to work? I mean, I can only see one way.
NNAMDIWell, since you mention that. Allow me to quote a tweet from Greenmoonart. It's not confusing. We know a bean burger is not made from a dead animal carcass. Just relax meat industry. Sadly people will be demanding your cruel polluting meat for a long time. And now here is Amber all the way from Portland, Oregon. Amber, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMBERHi, Kojo. Thank you for having me on the show. I'm a senior campaigner with PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And, you know, if the meat industry is telling the truth when they say they're concerned about marking with integrity and making sure consumers know what they are getting, then the meat industry should be onboard with PETA, who's been saying for all these years that all slaughter houses should have glass walls. And all processed meat packages should come with a health disclaimer warning consumers that eating processed meat causes cancer. The fat and cholesterol and the flesh of dead animals increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
NNAMDIAllow me to have Mark Dopp respond. Mark.
DOPPWell, I appreciate the comment. Let me add or provide some information. Anybody who is interested in learning how slaughter houses work or how meat is processed or how the plants are cleaned, should go to the North American Meat Institute website and look up the glass walls project. We did this exactly for that reason. There are videos that show what happens in a slaughter house. What happens when we clean a plant. How ground beef is made for a variety of species and a variety of topics. I invite you to go there.
NNAMDIJessica, what does the Missouri law and the similar legislation pending in other states mandate?
ALMYSo these are terrible laws. Missouri has passed a law that makes it unlawful to misrepresent a product as meat if it's not from harvested production, livestock, or poultry. And, of course, in this case, harvested means slaughtered. So the intent is to go after plant-based producers as well as the future producers of cell-based meat. And tell them they can't use meat terms on their label even if they also use terms like plant-based, vegan, or made from soy. And so it's really an intent to sensor speech on these packages.
NNAMDIIndeed, you have joined forces with some of the companies that manufacture these products as well as the ACLU to challenge the Missouri law in court on the ground that it violates the 1st Amendment.
ALMYThat's right. So Missouri doesn't have a substantial government interest that it's advancing with this legislation, which is required if they're going to constrain speech in this way. You know, the intent of the legislators was to protect the livestock industry. It had nothing to do with consumers. And we've requested records from the state for any evidence of consumer confusion. They came back and said they had no records responsive to our request. They have no evidence that consumers in Missouri are confused by veggie burger labels. This is straight up government censorship.
NNAMDIMark, is there a need for the word meat to be protected?
DOPPYes. There is. And this is where Jessica and I disagree somewhat. Again, I'm going to repeat myself. When we're talking about the cell-based products -- and let's focus on that for just a moment. The state law is going to be preempted because, as I said, there is a definition of meat. And it's been around for a long time. Just like there's a definition of meat by product and meat food product, etcetera.
DOPPWhen it comes to the plant-based products, I think there is a legitimate reason. There's substantial government interest in that the state wants to ensure, as you find in both the federal law and the state laws that it wants to prevent consumer deception. This reminds me very much of some of the issues that came up with respect to GMO labeling just a few years ago in Vermont and other states. This is a similar circumstance. The state of Missouri and some of the other states, when it comes to the plant-based products and many of those represent themselves to be products that are subject to a standard of identity, they're misrepresented.
ALMYSo I would take issue with that. I don't think that consumers are at all deceived by black bean burgers. Kind of similar to the tweet that Kojo read. You know, or a tofurky roast or a beyond burger. These are, you know, products that are familiar to consumers. They know exactly what they're buying. And there are ingredient disclosures. So right now there's a package of tofurky original sausage that's been put in front of me to look at.
DOPPYou can't see it on the radio. I get that. But this is tofurky product that represents itself as original sausage beerbrats.
DOPPThere's a standard of identity for that product.
ALMYAnd in two places.
DOPPAnd this product does not meet that standard of identity. In order to prevent people from being deceived, it should be more in the front of the package other than small font where it says vegan in the corner.
ALMYSo here on the front of this package --
DOPPThat's our disagreement.
ALMYThere are two places where it discloses that this is vegan.
WILLIAMSBefore you go any further, I think this is -- I think what's happening here is this is like throwing stones in a stream and thinking it will stop the water. This is technology that is coming. You can pretend that it is not coming. But the water is going to go around the stones. And we can argue about names and go back and forth with laws. But this is technology that's coming. And I think that's why you see a lot of large food companies particularly even ones that grow meat are investing in it.
ALMYThat's absolutely true.
NNAMDIBut, Richard, there are food identity standards in place in the United States that legally define what constitutes certain foods. So why is this even up for debate?
WILLIAMSI think it's up for debate, because those foods standards are old. I think they don't serve consumers anymore. In the age of the internet, we just simply don't have this sort of consumer confusion anymore. And what we really don't want is for our government agencies to spend a lot of time worrying about this when we have real serious food problems in this country.
NNAMDIMark, how is this different from the soy milk and almond milk labels. Obviously soy milk or oat milk is not milk from a cow. But the word milk is used on many milk alternative products.
DOPPWell, first of all, I don't represent the dairy industry. But let me put it this way. If you say soy milk and the two words are in the same font same lettering. That's one thing. That's not what we have here. This says beer brats original sausage and you got to look really hard and I'll hand this over to you to show you.
ALMYKojo, that way you can see.
DOPPWhere does it say vegan?
ALMYThe ingredients disclosure on the back. You can see that it says vegan twice.
NNAMDII can see it says vegan in tiny letters on the bottom and a little circle here.
ALMYThe reality --
NNAMDIHere now is Hallie in College Park, Maryland. Hallie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HALLIEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. It seems to me that the main issue besides confusing consumers is that the agriculture industry is worried about losing profits. So, you know, if we want to kind of placate them and make things as clear as possible for consumers, why couldn't products just say meat substitute, sausage substitute, turkey substitute. Instead of saying plant-based turkey, which could potentially be misleading is the argument that I'm hearing.
ALMYWell, under the Missouri law I think you have trouble saying turkey substitute too. It's the reference to the animal product that is really getting in the craw of people's -- you know, on these issues. You know, I want to go back to the food standards, because it's absolutely true that many of them are out of date. A lot of them preceded the ingredients disclosure. Now consumers can look on the package and see what things are.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up.
ALMYBut even -- with milk, for example, when the FDA promulgated that standard, it said, "This is only for the word milk that's unadorned." If you want to have flavored milk, that was what they were thinking about at the time like chocolate milk.
ALMYYou can use those -- right, strawberry. You can use compound names and so long as the meaning is clear to consumers it does not violate federal law. And that's why tofurky is on market right now and the FDA doesn't have a problem with those labels.
NNAMDIRichard, much of your time at the FDA was spent on consumer research of food labels and developing the criteria for what information needs to be included on food labels. Do food labels make a difference in what people ultimately choose to eat?
WILLIAMSAfter a 27 year career at FDA, I would love to say absolutely. Unfortunately, the data shows otherwise. Food labels are confusing for people. It's very hard to take all of the information on a food label, all of the claims on food labels and try to make a decision about whether or not a food is healthy for an individual. And the data shows that they really haven't made much of a difference. I do think there are a lot of new technologies that are coming that will be much more helpful to consumers.
DOPPAnd yet, Richard, consumers continue to demand more and more labeling on their products, country of origin and a whole host of other things like GMO.
DOPPSo I'm confused by your position.
WILLIAMSSure. Consumers demand lots of information. You can't ask consumers about any information and they would say, "We don't want it." But there's a difference between what they say they want and what they can use and what they effectively use.
NNAMDIMark, plant-based products have grown in popularity in recent years. But Americans also set a record in 2018 for meat consumption at an average of just over 222 pounds per person last year, which beat the last record set in 2004. So is there really a cause for concern by the traditional meat industry?
DOPPWhen it comes to the plant-based in the sense that we're talking about presenting a product -- in my view, this particular product is misbranded. So it's deceptive. Yeah, there's a problem there. Let me -- when we're talking about the cell-based products, because I think that's where a lot of the conversation is going to go yet.
DOPPYou are probably familiar with the letter that the Meat Institute sent in conjunction with Memphis Meats to the president last August. That letter said that we, the Meat Institute and Memphis Meats, deem the cell-based technology to be an "and," not an "or" proposition. There's an estimate that there's going to be a need for something on the order of 50 percent more protein by the year 2050. I will acknowledge that there is no way that the traditional meat industry can probably fill that need that demand by then.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly, but I wanted to get Eric's tweet and Jason's call. Eric tweets, "The problem with calling it meat is that it's not meat. If you want to taste chicken then eat chicken. Don't try to call a vegetable nugget when it contains no chicken. Mislabeling packaging is going to affect people who have allergies and people who have medical problems." And here is Jason in Alexandria, Virginia. Jason, you're turn.
JASONHi. Good afternoon, Kojo Nnamdi. I'm a first time caller so thank you for taking my call. I'm a food scientist and I want to say that language matters when it comes to science and it has its effect on the real world as well. You cannot identify something as meat, which is not. And one example I would give you is in some of the countries in third world countries, they have been labeling almond milk as healthier than regular milk. And people have been feeding that product to their children without understanding the complete disparity in the nutritional values in regular milk, which is derived from animals and almond milk, which has, you know, added nutrients in it.
JASONSo I just want to say that if there is -- if you want to call a vegetable meat, meat, why not just come up with something, a new language or, you know, a new word for it that defines it as it is. So thank you so much.
NNAMDIMark, the FDA and the USDA have announced that they're working on an agreement that will allow both agencies to regulate the future lab grown meat industry. Your organization has applauded this decision. Why do we need both agencies involved?
DOPPWell, there's a long history. I mean, if you take a look in how things have historically worked -- say irradiation. FDA took the time, has the expertise to ensure that that technology was safe to use in producing food products, both meat and non-meat products. Similarly FDA approves food additives, direct and indirect food additives. It's after that point that if it's a meat or poultry product USDA assumes jurisdiction.
DOPPAnd we think that that's the appropriate approach here. That's what I'll call regular order. It makes sense to have FDA look at this technology. Ensure that it's safe. But thereafter, if somebody wants to produces something and -- I agree with the folks in Memphis Meat. This is meat on the cell-based side. Thereafter, they should be competing and be required to meet the very same requirements that somebody, who makes pork chop or ground beef, whatever.
NNAMDIRichard, you know, the FDA well. Will this work? Is this the best way to go about regulating this in new industry?
WILLIAMSI have to disagree. I don't think. You know, we've tried for years to get a single food agency, because you don't want to see two different inspectors from different agencies telling a firm different things. I think this is really something that the agencies shouldn't have to work out themselves. This is a job for Congress, to make a decision and assign it to one or the other agencies.
DOPPOh, I'd have to disagree with that. I think there are plenty of examples where FDA and USDA have memorandum of understanding and they've worked perfectly fine. And Richard also knows that while the inspectors in a meat plant are there every day, the average inspection by an FDA inspector comes every once to three to five years.
NNAMDIJessica, you get the last word.
ALMYI have to say I'm with Mark on this. So the North American Meat Institute and the Good Food Institute agree, you know, that this should not be an issue for Congress. You know, consumers are really enthusiastic and excited about this technology. And an act of Congress would be a way of slowing it down and preventing it from coming to market. And, you know, I'm reminded of a quote, "If we can grow meat without the animal, why wouldn't we?" And you wonder, "Was that the PETA caller from earlier in the hour?" But no, it was from Tom Hayes when he was CEO of Tyson foods, which is the nation's largest meat producer.
NNAMDIAnd they're, obviously, interested in this.
NNAMDIWe'll have another discussion about this at a later day. Jessica Almy is Director of Policy at The Good Food Institute. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRichard Williams is Former Director of Social Science at the Food and Drug Administration. He's writing a book about the FDA. Richard, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Mark Dopp a Senior Vice-President of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs and General Counsel at the North American Meat Institute. Mark, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back two local black journalists on diversity in the newsroom, first up, Dorothy Butler Gilliam. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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