The Battle In Our Grocery Aisles

Sean Parker is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a second-year ENRP student.

The Emergence of Plant-Based Meat

The emergence of plant-based meat alternatives has captured the spotlight of the food industry over the past decade. Today, a trip to the grocery store will display an abundance of plant-based products ranging from Szechuan beefless strips to mushroom miso turkey. What started as a niche market for health-conscious enthusiasts has grown into a dominating force in the food industry, and meat producers have taken notice. 

In 2019, plant-based meat products reached $4.5 billion in retail sales alone. The interest in plant-based meat alternatives has captured the imagination of major fast food chains such as Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts that have incorporated their own plant-based meal options like the Impossible Whopper and the Beyond Meat breakfast sandwich. But what is seen to some as the latest fad in the food industry is viewed by others as a threat to meat producers’ livelihoods. As a result, the meat industry is pushing back with aggressive policy initiatives to offset the growing demand for emerging plant-based meat products. 

The Battle Over “Meat”

The battle between the meat industry and the plant-based industry is fought state-by-state and centered around labeling terminology on what is called “meat.” Thirteen states have enacted laws that require labels that contain phrases such as: “meat,” “sausage,” “burger,” and “hot dog” to be harvested from livestock. The controversy over labeling stems from a concern from the meat industry, which argues that labeling from the plant-based meat alternative products that include “meat like” phrases will confuse customers over which products are made from animals and which are made from plants. The result of these state-enacted laws puts plant-based meat alternative producers at a disadvantage when it comes to selling their products. Plant-based products that are sold next to their meat counterparts have been shown to sell at a higher rate than those that are in their own section.

Most of the states that have enacted labeling laws are concentrated in the Midwest and are major producers of livestock products in places such as Missouri, Montana, and Arkansas. Many of these Midwestern states have a financial incentive to protect their cattle producers which make up a significant portion of their state’s GDP. In 2018, agricultural products and services alone contributed 88.4 billion dollars in revenue for the state of Missouri, the second largest beef producer in the country, making it an important part of their economy. 

The MEAT Act of 2019

The fight over product labeling has worked its way into a national debate. The FDA was recently granted oversight over product labeling through the passing of the Real Marketing Edible Artificial Truthfully (MEAT) Act of 2019. The MEAT Act authorizes the acting Secretary of Agriculture to determine which labels are misleading and require any plant-based products that use “meat like” phrases to also include the word “imitation” as a descriptor word. The dispute over labeling has spurred a broad coalition of advocates representing the plant-based meat alternative industry including the Good Food Institute, Tofurky, The Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. Together, these groups are challenging the legality of the label requirements in different states. They argue that the labeling laws overstate the extent to which their products are misleading while also infringing on their right to free speech under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

The Art of Product Placement

To help promote their products, one technique that the plant-based meat industry continues to pursue is through requesting placement in the same section as meat products throughout the aisles of grocery stores. The number of plant-based meat products found next to real meat products is increasing in volume and options, causing frustration among meat producers. Product placement plays an important role in determining consumer preferences. The plant-based meat industry argues that product placement is critical for consumers to become familiar with their products. However, the meat industry refutes this practice as unfair competition and claims it creates confusion among customers over which products are animal products versus plant products. Aisle placement for plant-based products has shown that they sell at a higher rate if they are found next to other meat products. 

A Warning From The Dairy Industry

The meat industry is taking cues from a different agricultural industry which suffered from product substitutes. Dairy producers have experienced their own set of problems due to dairy alternatives. With the emergence of dairy substitutes such as oat-milk and vegan cheese, dairy farmers across the Midwest experienced a steady decline in revenues over the past decade. Milk sales alone were down by $1.1 billion in 2018.

Although plant-based meat alternatives represent a small portion of the total market for meat, the meat industry is determined to not allow them to share in their market revenues. In addition, the demand for plant-based meat alternatives is rising. In 2018, plant-based meat products grew by 10% in grocery stores across the U.S. By 2025, plant-based meat products are expected to generate an estimated $12 billion in revenues, suggesting that the trend for plant-based alternatives does not seem to be slowing anytime soon. It’s this trend that has meat producers across the country taking legal action against the plant-based alternative industry. 

A Growing Global Appetite

While the demand for plant-based alternatives continues to grow so does the demand for meat both domestically and globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the percentage of livestock consumption per capita is expected to grow to 45 percent for the total global population by 2030 — the equivalent of 375 million tons of meat per year. The increase for livestock products will undoubtedly put a serious strain on the planet’s capacity to meet this demand. Raising livestock requires an enormous amount of land and resources. Current livestock practices account for 77 percent of the land that is used for agricultural purposes but only accounts for 37 percent of the global protein supply chain. Conversely, plant-based food accounts for 63 percent of the global protein supply chain and 83 percent of the global calorie supply. In addition to straining resources, raising livestock also contributes to climate change. Current global agricultural practices account for 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — most of which stems from cattle farming practices resulting in approximately seven gigatons of CO2 released annually. The increase in demand for meat products in conjunction with an increasing world population will continue to create challenges for the planet and agricultural practices.  

The Next Food Frontier

The terminology dispute over what is deemed as “meat” may seem like a frivolous battle, but we should underestimate it. The meat industry consists of hundreds of different organizations that are well-funded and organized. Their legal strategy to hinder competition from plant-based meat products undermines the importance of finding solutions for a growing global appetite for meat. The future of our food supplies as well as our planet may depend on the successes of plant-based meat alternatives. 

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