The proliferation of plant-based proteins marketed as “burgers” and large investments to develop cultured meats grown in laboratories have cattle producers doubling down on their efforts to protect the identity of traditionally grown beef.
Earlier this month, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association adopted a policy to protect consumers and the beef industry from “fake meat” and misleading labels.
On Friday, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned USDA for rulemaking to establish accurate beef labeling requirements to differentiate between beef products derived from cattle and alternatives created in a laboratory.
Those actions follow recent investments by Tyson Foods, Cargill, tech billionaire Bill Gates and other companies developing alternative protein sources.
Both Tyson and Cargill have announced investments in Memphis Meats, a start-up company developing cultured meat grown from animal cells. Tyson has also announced an additional investment in Beyond Meat, a company that manufactures plant-based proteins.
NCBA’s new policy recognizes the work it’s been doing behind the scenes for about a year to address new products that are perhaps labeled in a way that is misleading or confusing to consumers, said Danielle Beck, NCBA director of government affairs.
Companies have developed plant-based foods that bleed and sizzle, are packaged like real meat and sit next to real meat in the grocery store. NCBA wants labels that distinguish real meat from fake meat for those products and new ones that will be coming to market, she said.
In addition, meat grown in Petri dishes is making its way to the marketplace, and the issue is how it will be labeled so it’s clear to consumers that it’s not traditionally grown meat, she said.
NCBA has already started working with USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, but the issue is not as clear-cut as one might think, she said.
FDA has jurisdiction over plant-based foods, and imitation products that are nutritionally inferior to the real product can’t legally use the nomenclature of the real product, she said.
The dairy industry has fought that battle for years, with plant-based products using terms such as “milk” and “yogurt.”
USDA has jurisdiction over meat — but while there’s a formal standard to identify meat, there’s no such standard for beef. And cultured meat has not yet come to market, so it’s unclear which agency will regulate it, she said.
“We’re not anti-technology; we’ve always been big fans of innovation,” she said.
NCBA just wants to make sure those alternative products are labeled in a way that’s clear to customers and doesn’t disparage traditionally grown beef, she said.
USCA’s petition states those alternative products should not be permitted to be marketed as beef or meat.
Products labeled “beef” and “meat” should be limited to products from animals born, raised and processed in the traditional manner, and those definitions should not be limited to just U.S. product, the organization said.
“U.S. cattle producers take pride in developing the highest quality and safest beef in the world, and labels must clearly distinguish that difference,” Kenny Graner, USCA president, said in a statement.