Opinion: Missouri’s meat law panders to beef industry

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I think tofu (curdled soy milk) is delicious.  Tofu is a foodies’ blank canvas, a vehicle for other ingredients and bold flavors, that create healthy, creative meals.  And it can serve as a tremendous meat substitute.   

And that’s where Missouri is drawing a line in the sand.  Missouri has become the first state in the nation to make it a crime for food manufacturers to label their products as “meat” if “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Violators face fines up to $1,000 and a year in state slammer.

Missouri’s Department of Agriculture offered up how the law works last summer:

  • Products must include a prominent statement on the front of the package, immediately before or immediately after the product name, that the product is “plant-based,” “veggie,” “lab-grown,” “lab-created” or a comparable qualifier; and
  • Products must include a prominent statement on the package that the product is “made from plants,” “grown in a lab” or a comparable disclosure.
  • No enforcement referrals will be made until Jan. 1, 2019.

The Missouri Cattleman’s Association claims the law is needed to protect consumers from confusion.

What?

On the face of it, the MCA would have you believe that housewives are drooling, slack-eyed zombies shuffling down grocery aisles easily bamboozled by any package label containing the word “meat”  or perhaps burger, patty, sausage and the like.

I seriously doubt anyone who has chomped down on a veggie burger believes they are eating meat.

Still the U.S. Cattleman’s Association has to be fully jazzed by the Missouri law and hopes the Food and Drug Administration takes notice.

As an asidem the FDA has already proposed banning the word “milk” for non-dairy beverages.

So what is this meat labeling debate about?  Let’s be clear. It isn’t about consumer confusion. Rather it’s an attempt to suppress the rapidly growing plant-based market.  

Unsurprisingly the food fight over the word “meat” will be decided by the courts. Food-maker Tofurky, the Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in Missouri federal court saying the law is unconstitutional.

Clearly the Missouri state’s attorney general wanted no part of a  prolonged court battle.

Missouri attorneys reached a settlement with plaintiffs in the case in mid-February.  Details are expected to be released to the public sometime next month.

Needless to say the settlement is unlikely to weigh in detail on the merits of the First Amendment as it applies to “meat.”  And that’s unfortunate.

Ultimately that task will fall on USDA, which recently reached agreement with FDA over the production and regulation of the plant-based food industry.

And with an increasing number of states introducing legislation similar to Missouri, the USDA needs to be proactive and develop transparent and fair labeling requirements that both cattlemen and the plant based market can stomach.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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