Beef groups seek to stop plant-based, lab-grown protein products to be labeled as beef or meat
As the dairy industry continues their battle to remove the word milk from products derived from almonds and other non-milk products, the protein industries are trying to stay a step ahead of a similar battle.
As producer groups around the country urge the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service to act, the comment period for a petition filed by the United States Cattlemen’s Association has been extended.
The purpose of the petition, according to a press release from the association, is a request that the agency establish “accurate beef labeling requirements to better inform consumers on the difference between beef products derived from cattle and those created in a laboratory.” These rules, according to USCA President Kenny Graner, will stop the labeling of “beef” products that are made with plant or insect protein or produced in a laboratory.
Responding in kind, the Nebraska Farm Bureau is urging the USDA to not use the term “meat” to describe plant-based or lab-grown meat alternatives.
During the state’s policy development process, policy came forth from Farm Bureau members that mentioned the almond milk labeling battle but concentrated on a larger picture. Given the advent of meat-free or lab-produced meats and plant-based alternatives, producers communicated their interest in protecting the commonly known names of products trusted by consumers. According to Jordan Dux, Director of National Affairs for Nebraska Farm Bureau, a resolution was adopted that focuses on the terms common to the industry.
“The livestock industry spends a great deal of time developing consumer goodwill toward things like (the) pork chop, sirloin, and ribeye or chicken breast, all names that have an amount of consumer recognition to go along with it,” Dux said. “There is concern within the livestock industry that given the advent of some of these new products, that they will utilize these terms.”
Since the state meeting, a resolution has been passed regarding this issue at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting. Dux said Nebraska Farm Bureau is supportive of the efforts of the NCBA and other producer groups, especially given the importance of the livestock industry, and specifically the beef industry, in their state.
“We don’t want to allow a foreign product to move in on that market share that we’ve worked so hard for,” he said. “It’s not that we oppose those products, it’s not that we don’t think they should exist. We represent the corn and soybean guys who will be an essential component of the plant-based ones.”
WHO’S IN CHARGE
There is debate surrounding which agency is responsible and has authority to oversee the labeling, be it the FDA or USDA, though Dux said all agencies need to be at the table. If the petition is accepted, the FSIS would issue a formal rule and it would be opened for public comment.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association submitted its organization’s official comments to the FSIS in response to the USCA’s 124-page petition, Petition Number 18-01, encouraging the USDA to take action to protect beef producers and consumers.
NCBA has requested the USDA work with the Food and Drug Administration to not merely expand upon a definition of terms they say will likely be ignored by the FDA but rather “take appropriate, immediate enforcement action against improperly-labeled imitation meat products labels that clearly violate existing laws.”
Additionally, NCBA is urging the USDA to “assert jurisdiction over foods consisting of, isolated from or produced from cell culture or tissue derived from livestock and poultry animals or their parts.” In a press release, the NCBA said the USDA-FSIS possesses the technical expertise and regulatory infrastructure to ensure meat safety for U.S. consumers. It is through the pre-approval of all labels prior to marketplace availability that misleading or unsafe labeling can be prevented while ensuring that lab-grown meats meet the same food safety inspection standards as all other meat products.
According to Danielle Beck, NCBA’s director of government affairs, the FDA has the ability to enforce current rules and laws but has been hesitant to do so. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act contains a standard of identity for milk as coming from a dairy cow with additional language requiring nutritionally inferior products to be labeled as imitation preceding the product name.
“Soy milk is nutritionally inferior and the FDA has turned a blind eye and are unwilling to enforce the law,” Beck said. “The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act have clear misbranding statements to avoid labeling that is confusing to consumers and they are expected to take enforcement action against those products.”
Creating a standard of identity becomes an issue when plant-based and lab-based products are closely examined under the law.
“We refer to fake meat broadly,” she said. “Sometimes people conflate the difference between plant-based and lab-grown products. We don’t have the same case to make (against plant-based products) in terms of nutritional superiority.”
Depending upon the variables of serving size and fat content, in some cases beef is nutritionally superior, equivalent or even inferior. A standard of identity, she said, would be under the USDA while the FDA is the enforcement body. At this point, producers need the USDA to advocate on beef’s behalf to the FDA. Lab-created products may meet the scientific definition of meat but the USDA has mandatory pre-approval for all labels to ensure science-based labeling. This, Beck said, would preempt the use of the term “clean meat” on such labels. Despite the laboratory growing environment, the product remains a perishable product that comes with the same food safety concerns and requirements of other such products.
“We looked at what was going on and the speculation of who would be, and the USDA is the only one to ensure a remotely even playing field,” she said. “With the FDA, there is no doubt in my mind that these products would be called clean meat, which is a worst case scenario for me because ultimately that’s a product out there that’s disparaging to traditional products and that’s unwarranted.”
In their petition, the USCA made mention of some companies that are marketing alternative products as “clean” meat, a term that could damage the beef industry and cause consumer confusion. In turn, they have asked the USDA to act upon labeling that only allows the term “beef” to be used on products that have been born, raised and harvested in a traditional manner. Similar limitations, the petition reads, should be placed on the use of the word “meat.”
“If you look at what’s happened with dairy products at FDA, that is a perfect example of why we don’t want these lab-grown meat products to be under FDA jurisdiction,” Beck said on the group’s Beltway Beef podcast. “If (meat alternatives) are allowed to be regulated under FDA, they’ll be allowed to call themselves clean meat, and we’ll have lost the battle.”
Dux likened this to the advent of the Pringles chips and the specific definition of a potato chip. He pointed out that the snack is not labeled as a potato chip nor is it typically sold in the general area of potato chips after potato producers used an argument similar to the arguments raging today.
Proponents of these plant and lab-produced products, the Good Food Institute among the most vocal, have filed their comments which can be read at regulations.gov. Good Food Institute submitted 15 pages of comments as well as a 65-page appendix in response to the petition as well as their own petition to the USDA last March. This petition requested new USDA policies allowing names for products despite the existing standards of identity.
Beck names the Good Food Institute as an enemy of the beef industry and points out that the riff within beef producer groups does little except advance the cause of the GFI.
“We want to protect beef nomenclature as well but believe there is a better way to do it,” she said. “The Good Food Institute is transparent about their intentions and that is to bring an end to animal agriculture. I would like to believe there is a world in which these products can coexist peacefully on the market where we’re not out there disparaging theirs and they’re not disparaging ours.”
Ultimately, Beck said the concern rests with the consumer being provided accurate information with which to make informed decisions.
The comment period has been extended to May 17, 2018. ❖
— Spencer Gabel is a freelance writer from Wiggins, Colo., where she and her family raise cattle and show goats. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Rachel Spencer Media.