Nebraska, other states discussing truth in labeling for meat and protein products
February 1, 2019
You've heard that "it's not what's on the outside, it's what's on the inside that counts." But what about when the outside is … misleading about what is on the inside?
A Nebraska District 3 State Senator is concerned about consumers who may have trouble differentiating alternate protein products from real meat in the marketplace. She is working on a bill to amend current state statute to prevent insect-based, vegetable-based, or lab-grown food from being labeled as "meat."
A former farm girl named Carol Blood — who, incidentally, pointed out that some companies deceptively use beet juice to actually mimic the blood contained in meat products — said consumers deserve the opportunity to clearly see what they are considering for purchase.
Blood, a vegetarian from Sarpy County, near Omaha, said she witnessed first-hand the confusion brought on by non-meat products being labeled as meat when she observed some consumers shopping in a health food store last summer. "I was at a grocery store, they had their non-meat products right next to the meat products. These women were arguing about whether a package was a meat or veggie patty." The product looked like hamburger — right down to the beet juice "blood," and the label identified the item as plant-based meat. "Those can't be the only two consumers in the world that were confused. I feel like the confusing labels are intentional," she said. It was this experience that convinced Blood that she should work through legislative channels to require truth in labeling for meat alternatives.
“What we want to do is make sure the consumer is aware of where the food comes from, that it comes from a true animal and not something that was grown in a laboratory. The assurances of what our products go through, that the animals are healthy and the meat is of good quality. We are protecting our industry but protecting the consumer, too.”
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Although she herself doesn't eat meat, the self-described "old-school" democrat said she's been blasted by other vegetarians for supporting LB 594.
"I got quite a few emails the first 24 hours the bill was made public, telling me I'm a horrible vegetarian for supporting a bill like this." But Blood likes to talk one-on-one with people to help them understand where she's coming from. "If we're able to have a dialogue, we talk about what I call gray areas." Blood said she reminds folks that she isn't trying to legislate what they can or can't eat, but to simply require food marketers to be honest. "I'm sorry if you think I'm a bad vegetarian for pushing a bill like this but I don't make bills for my own personal likes and dislikes, they are for the people in Nebraska. This is all consumer-driven. I'm not going after people who choose to eat meat, this is for truth in advertising, ethical marketing."
Nebraska's No. 1 industry is cattle, which contribute $12.1 billion to the state's economy, she said. "It's my job as a senator to try to get a handle on this before it gets out of hand. We want people to know we value the cattle industry here in Nebraska and we expect people who compete with our industry to be honest in how they market their products."
Blood originally filed LB 14, a standalone bill, which she later dropped in favor of a new bill, LB 594 that will amend the current Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. She believes the practicalities of enforcing the issue will be much simpler this way.
Meat, as defined in her bill, is: any edible portion of any livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof and does not include insect-based, plant-based, or lab-grown food products — livestock includes cattle, calves, sheep, swine, ratite birds, including but not limited to ostrich and emu, llamas, alpaca, bison, elk, goats, horses, and rabbits raised in confinement for human consumption and poultry includes any domesticated bird including but not limited to chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese raised in confinement for human consumption.
The bill makes it a violation of the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act if someone advertises, promotes, labels, represents, illustrates, displays for sale, offers for sale, attempts to sell, or sells an insect-based a plant based or a lab-grown product as meat.
"We're not the meat police," Blood said explaining that there ought not be a need for new inspectors, but that the issue will be consumer driven. "If I see a package, I can pick up the phone and file a complaint, just like someone would if they were sold a bad tire."
Both cattle groups in her state, the Nebraska Cattlemen and the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, support her bill, as do the state Pork Producers, Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Farmers Union.
Blood said she has heard that Impossible Burger has hired a lobbyist to oppose the bill. In an Omaha World Record story, a restaurant owner who serves Impossible Burgers said she isn't sure what the bill would accomplish and that customers are clear about what they are getting when they order non-meat burgers.
Other states in the region are working on similar legislation.
Brett Moline, the director of governmental and public affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau said his group supports SF 68, a bill that would require that "fake meat" be labeled to make it clear that the product was not derived from a live animal. The product will also have to be segregated in the meat case. "We are strongly supporting that. Our members don't raise a lot of stuff in a petri dish," Moline said.
"What we want to do is make sure the consumer is aware of where the food comes from, that it comes from a true animal and not something that was grown in a laboratory. The assurances of what our products go through, that the animals are healthy and the meat is of good quality. We are protecting our industry but protecting the consumer, too."
Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said, "I think the key point is that we're not trying to interfere with the sale of any of these other products, we're just trying to ensure truth in advertising, that the labeling of the beef or pork is only applied to the animals that we all raise in our businesses." His group also supports the bill.
SF 68 has passed the house and will now be heard in the senate.
According to Montana Farm Bureau National Affairs Director Nicole Rolf, LC 1392 is a draft bill that would change current code to require that cell-cultured edible product not be labeled as meat in Montana. "It is a good bill that we support," Rolf said. The bill has been officially dropped is but not assigned to a committee yet.
The Independent Beef Association of North Dakota helped draft HB 1400. The bill was heard in the house ag committee Jan. 24, and although there wasn't time for a vote, Kenny Graner believes it will pass. "All of the committee members appeared to support it," said the I-BAND board member.
All of the state agricultural groups supported the bill in the committee hearing, and the only opposition was a letter submitted by the Good Food Institute, he said.
"It will be a good deal for the cattle industry, not only for North Dakota but for the country," Graner said. "We're not saying they can't sell it, it comes down to truth in labeling. That's all this is."
SB 68, sponsored by Isabel Rep. Oren Lesmeister would amend chapter 39-4 to add this new section:
A food product shall be deemed to be misbranded if the product is labeled or branded in a false, deceptive or misleading manner that misrepresents the product as a meat food product as defined in section 39-5-6, a meat byproduct as defined in section 39-5-6, or as poultry.
For the purposes of this title, the term, poultry, includes anything containing meat intended for or capable of use for human consumption that is derived in whole or in part, from any domesticated bird intended for human consumption.
Lesmeister said he hasn't heard any opposition to his bill and, in fact he was contacted by a vegetarian who supports the bill. "She was very upset. She found out that lab-grown protein is considered a meat product. She was very upset about how it was labeled."
Lesmeister also pointed out that lab-grown protein is not subject to the same regulations as livestock when it comes to hormones, antibiotics and more. He just wants a level playing field, he said. "They are piggy backing on our industry now. Allowing us to do the advertising work through our checkoff. People are being misled as to what it is that they are buying."
Reps. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, and Kimmi Lewis, R-Kim, represent the lion's share of eastern Colorado counties that are home to much of the state's cattle production. The two are sponsoring a bill to protect consumers and protein producers from confusion due to the labeling of lab-produced protein products, meant to mimic beef and other proteins.
"In my district, animal agriculture is big," Pelton said. "I'm not trying to exclude anyone, I just want people to know what they're buying. Anything I can do to protect animal agriculture, I need to do."
Pelton said the language of the bill does not include penalties for misleading labels, all in the interest of ensuring the passage of the bill.
The bill, which was delayed by the lengthy reading of HB 1032 banning abstinence-only sex education, is HB 1102 and defines the product as having been derived from a process in which most of the cells were not grown within the physical body of living livestock. It precludes the use of the word "meat" in the labeling of the product, and mandates the use of the term "lab-grown protein" or "artificially cultured protein" to describe the product.
The bill is also sponsored by Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg and Joann Ginal and is expected to be heard on Feb. 15, 2019. ❖
— Rachel Gabel, The Fence Post assistant editor, contributed to this article.