As the battle over transparency in food labeling continues to pick up speed, congressional legislators have started taking action at the state level to compel imitation meat manufacturers to use clearer terminology on their products' packaging. The debate over labeling standards for meat substitutes has been raging for some time, pitting consumer advocacy groups and traditional meat vendors against a growing segment of plant-based food manufacturers.
In February 2018, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association formally petitioned the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service to establish beef and meat labeling requirements that would exclude products not derived from animals from using the term "meat" on the packaging. The USCA pointed out there are currently no labeling rules on the books that govern the use of "beef" and "meat" on product labels, and suggested that the lack of standardization has made it difficult for consumers to understand exactly what they are paying for. Imitation meat is often produced from alternative or synthetic sources, such as plants, insects, and animal cells that are artificially cultivated in a lab.
Proponents of the USCA's petition have argued that the labeling of lab-grown substitutes as "meat" knowingly misleads consumers about the nutritional value of their products. Similar accusations have been brought against plant-based dairy producers over the past few years, as The Regulatory Review discussed in early March, though in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that labeling almond milk as "milk" did not constitute a deceptive practice.
What Makes a Product Label Misleading?
While food manufacturers and advocacy groups seem to use different criteria for evaluating whether a product label is misleading, there are clear legal guidelines that U.S. courts and government agencies use to make a determination. Under the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, a label is considered misleading if it includes deceptive or ambiguous information about an ingredient or nutrient level that is otherwise typical for the specific type of food product. This is further clarified by applying the standards and definitions created by the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for determining which claims manufacturers are allowed to list on their labels.
Recent State-Level Meat Labeling Bills
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet made any formal rulings on whether imitation meat producers will be allowed to continue using phrases like "ground beef style" on their product labels. The lack of movement at the federal level has compelled many state legislators to take matters into their own hands, starting with a 2018 bill in Missouri that defined meat as being "derived from harvested production livestock or poultry," NPR reported. Although this legislation represented the first state-level labeling law of its kind, several other states have since followed suit.
A bipartisan coalition of Mississippi legislators passed Senate Bill 2922 in late February, prohibiting food manufacturers from labeling products derived from animal cultures, plants or insects as "meat." The bill allows Mississippi's Commissioner of Agriculture to stop the sale of any food items found to contain false or misleading statements on its label or packaging, the Clarion Ledger reported. The state's current commissioner, Andy Gipson, previously petitioned the USDA and FDA to enforce strict truth-in-labeling laws and standards of identity for lab-grown meat to protect consumers from potential health risks. "Because cell-cultured food products will be manufactured in a laboratory setting, many consumers will be concerned about food safety," commented Gipson in a statement to the agencies.
In early March, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a "truth in labeling" bill that bans imitation meat manufacturers from marketing their products as "meat," according to U.S. News & World Report. The legislation (HB1407) is intended to protect consumers, along with the states' meat and rice producers, by establishing clear rules for how products derived from plants or lab-grown cells can be labeled. In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the bill's sponsor, Representative David Hillman, commented that "this law only affects people who want to deceive the public about how their food originated. And if you're not trying to deceive the public, this will not affect you or any of the outlets who sell these products." The law will also impose a $1,000 fine on imitation meat producers for each violation of the new ruling.