What is beef? Texas bill would block use of term for imitations

John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Texas, the top cattle producer in the nation, might seem an unlikely backdrop for confusion over the meaning of words such as “meat” or “beef.”

But that isn’t stopping an effort in the state Legislature to officially define them — by codifying “meat,” for instance, as derived solely from carcasses of cows, chickens or other livestock, with no “lab-grown, cell cultured, insect or plant-based food products” included.

The definitions, contained in a proposed law called the Texas Meat and Imitation Food Act, are needed to prevent makers of meat alternatives, such as plant-based burger patties, from duping consumers regarding the contents of their products, according to agriculture groups that are backing the plan.

The law would block the words “meat,” “beef,” “chicken,” “pork” or any “common variation” of them from being used on packaging, even if only to claim similar textures, flavors or cooking methods, unless the official definitions are met. It wouldn’t prevent the use of “burger” or other non-specific terms.

“For me it is all about truth in advertising — being truthful to your consumer,” said Missy Bonds, a third-generation Texas rancher and a board member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

“We are not opposed to new development and new products,” Bonds said. But “they are trying to connect our product to their product, and we want to dissociate our product from their product.”

The proposed remedy — outlined in House Bill 316, by state Rep. Brad Buckley, R-Killeen — is being criticized as censorship by advocates for alternatives to conventionally produced protein.

Similar laws have been introduced in other states, with mixed success, and a number that have won approval are subject to ongoing litigation based on the contention that they violate the constitutional right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“Label censorship laws are condescending to consumers and unconstitutional,” said Scott Weathers, senior policy specialist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to animal protein, as well as development of meat produced in laboratories from cultivated animal cells.

Weathers said the use of the word “meat” and related terms on the labels of such products are appropriate because they describe functionality and intended use. They aren’t meant to trick anyone, he said.

“We think it’s unfortunate that some of our elected officials are spending their time on the imaginary crisis of people confusing hamburgers for veggie burgers,” Weathers said.

But Buckley, a veterinarian who also helps operate a small family cattle operation, said the issue isn’t imaginary and is likely to grow, because more alternatives to conventionally raised meat are in development, will be brought to market and stand to perplex some consumers without clear definitions in place.

The Good Food Institute estimates that sales of plant-based meat alternatives came in at about $940 million nationwide in 2019, the most recent figure available — a sum dwarfed by the nearly $9 billion generated annually by sales of beef cattle in Texas alone.

But the market for alternatives to conventional meat is growing, climbing by about 18% in 2019, and Weathers said the trend is expected to continue because demand is increasing “across every consumer category” and region.

Buckley said the Texas meat industry isn’t afraid of the competition but simply wants to ensure that consumers know what they’re choosing.

“The burden is on those who come forth with another type of product to accurately represent it and let that product stand on its own, if you will,” he said.

Under his bill, “beef” is defined as “any edible portion of a formerly live and whole cattle carcass, not derived by synthetic or artificial means.”

An identical bill Buckley sponsored in the 2019 session of the state Legislature garnered a committee hearing but died without coming up for a vote.

He said he’s optimistic regarding its chances this session, however, because the overall issue has gained more prominence.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, for instance, is citing the fight for what it views as the need for more accurate labeling of “fake meat” nationwide among its top priorities.

But advocates for alternatives to conventional meat haven’t been knuckling under. Representatives for two of the best-known makers of plant-based alternatives — Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both of which are based in California — turned out to testify against Buckley’s bill in 2019 and are likely to oppose it again if it gains further traction this year.

“Impossible Foods takes pains to emphasize that our product is made from plants and contains no animal products whatsoever,” the company said in a written statement. “In fact, our skyrocketing growth is due entirely to the fact there is no consumer confusion. When given the choice between products that are delicious and nutritious, consumers prefer a product that is also sustainable.”

Beyond Meat didn’t respond to a recent request for comment from the American-Statesman. But it has previously made clear that it has plenty on the line if the proposed Texas law wins approval.

“Our products would be immediately at risk throughout the state — just by virtue of the company name alone,” a Beyond Meat representative said during the 2019 hearing over Buckley’s bill.

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