Missouri lawmakers pass bill to prevent plant-based meat companies from using the word “meat”

If passed, this would be a first-of-its-kind law to regulate the term “meat.”

Update, May 17, 2018: The Missouri Senate voted to approve a provision that would ban plant-based and “clean” meat companies from using the the word “meat.” This unprecedented rule was part of an omnibus agriculture bill, which is now on its way to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. It will be effective starting August 28, 2018.

In Missouri, plant-based proteins designed to look and feel like meat may no longer be allowed to use the term “meat” on their packaging, according to an omnibus agriculture bill which passed in the state’s House of Representatives yesterday.

The unprecedented piece of legislation would specifically prohibit the use of the term “meat” on products that don’t come from animals. And, to be clear, the prohibition applies not just to plant-based products. Other forms of alt-protein, including so-called “clean” meat cultured from animal cells, would also be barred from using the term. According to the bill, meat is only “meat” if it comes from traditionally raised livestock—that is, from live animals specifically farmed for their flesh.

House Rep. Jeff Knight, a former livestock auctioneer who sponsored a standalone bill identical to the meat-labeling provision in the omnibus bill, intends the new legislation to safeguard the state’s ranchers economically.

“‘Meat’ is meat.”
“We wanted to protect our farmers from misleading advertising that could negatively impact Missouri farmers, who actually help pay for their own marketing in checkoff money,” Knight says, in an interview by email.

Traditional vegetarian alternatives are unlikely to be affected by this bill. After all, they’re not calling themselves “meat.” For example, MorningStar Farms sells “Chik’n strips,” Trader Joe’s sells “beef-less ground beef,” Tofurky sells “deli slices.” Vegan and vegetarian alternatives have long tweaked their language to ward off regulatory disputes of this kind.

Instead, the new rules target newer-generation “plant-based” and “clean” meat startups that aim to replicate the taste and texture of meat precisely—and make direct comparisons explicit in their marketing. One well-known example is Impossible Foods, a startup whose crown jewel is the Impossible Burger: an alternative to the beef patty that looks like meat, tastes like meat (depending on who you ask), and even bleeds like meat—thanks to the presence of “heme,” a tricked-out soy protein that gives the product its famous medium-rare mouthfeel. What makes Impossible Foods different from the Boca Burger is that the company doesn’t really want to be in the vegetarian aisle at all. Just look at the language included on Impossible’s promotional materials, which include phrases like “for people who love meat,” “the experience meat lovers crave,” and “a carnivore’s dream.”

This approach has proved threatening to ranchers, who are now lobbying lawmakers to pass laws that keep “meat” in the domain of livestock—not labs.

“‘Meat’ is meat,” Mike Deering, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattleman’s Association (MCA), says, in a phone interview. (The MCA helped draft the language of the provision.) “It’s derived from harvested livestock production and we do not want consumers to be misled when they purchase a product that’s called ‘meat’; they need to be assured that it is meat.”

The bill now awaits consideration in the Missouri Senate, which has until May 18 to pass corresponding legislation.

Meanwhile, the meat nomenclature wars continue to unfold nationwide. In February, the U.S. Cattleman’s Association petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to officially define the term “meat.” In April, the agency began taking public comments on the petition. Public comment period closed just last Saturday. Given the loadedness of the debate, any action USDA ultimately takes is likely to stir controversy—and whatever happens in Missouri, this won’t be the last we hear on this topic. Stay tuned.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.