Reputation more important than labels in food business

You won’t find vegetarian products labelled as burgers, steaks, sausages or even bacon-flavoured in France.

And to get the monikers dairy, milk or cheese, the product must come from an animal, not almonds or soy.

France’s parliament recently approved the measures and now the U.S. National Farmers Union, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association are also lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture for regulations on the labelling of imitation, or fake, meat products.

For example, the NCBA firmly believes the term beef should be applicable only to products derived from actual livestock raised by farmers and ranchers. It wants the USDA to be the department that regulates the emerging sector because it requires pre-approval of all labels before products hit the marketplace.

Veggie burgers, often made from soybeans, have been around for decades but were bland and unappealing, allowing them to be dismissed as real competition to livestock producers.

But new types of products are being developed and promoted as better capturing the taste and texture of real meat.

The makers of these products are targeting markets beyond the vegetarian community to those who are concerned about animal welfare and those who want to address climate change.

One of the higher profile companies in the field is Impossible Foods, headquartered on California’s Silicon Valley, home of the high tech industry.

Its plant-based Impossible Burger made headlines recently when fast food chain White Castle agreed to do a test market in more than 100 of its locations.

A different take on fake meat comes from companies that harvest stem cells from live animals and then multiply them in a lab until there are trillions of cells, enough to actually have a food product. These cultured products borrow technology from medicine, where stem cells are being used to repair organs.

Lab-based meat initiatives are less developed commercially than the plant-based substitutes, but the novelty of the idea — meat without the animal — is also getting attention.

What is particularly galling about this latter technology is that many of its promoters refer to it as “clean meat,” with the implied allegation that real meat from livestock is not clean.

The promoters of lab-grown fake meat argue their product is more humane and would have less opportunity to be tainted with contaminants such as E. coli. The great herds of livestock and flocks of poultry that produce manure and methane — a potent greenhouse gas — would be eliminated.

Also, they argue, it would mostly eliminate the need for feedgrain and the inputs needed to produce them, freeing up land for production of food for humans.

How much of this is true and whether it would work in the real world is highly debatable, but the potential for these technologies to present real competition to animal protein has stirred agricultural organizations to action.

They don’t want the supermarket meat counter to go the way of the dairy cooler, where milk from cows sometimes pales by comparison to the brightly packaged drink offerings from almond and soy processors.

Getting help from legislators or regulatory agencies to restrict how products are labelled is a worthwhile strategy, but I doubt that it will address in the long term the competition from these new types of food.

If the manufacturers can actually use plants or lab techniques to make protein foods with pleasing taste and texture, then consumers will find them regardless of what they are called.

And it should not be forgotten that new plant-based protein foods are creating a larger market for pulse crops.

To truly meet the competition, livestock producers and processors must be able to show that their food is produced humanely, safely and in ways that are sustainable and good for the environment.

They must ensure that their products deliver consistent excellent taste.

They must constantly prove their reputation so that consumers can feel that they are doing the right thing for their health, their family and the planet when they buy meat.

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