U.S. beef sector focuses on plant-based product labels

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The push to more clearly label simulated meat products is a major policy thrust for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The Real Meat Act or Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully has gone to the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, but action is unlikely in this presidential election year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service already has meat definitions, standards and regulations but enforcement has been weak, said Danielle Beck of the NCBA.

Misbranding of items is already on the books.

“If you are a food product that is imitating one with a legal standard of identity, you have to have the word ‘imitation’ on your product,” she said in an interview during the NCBA convention in San Antonio.

“FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has failed to take enforcement action on improperly labelled products that are legally misbranded like soy milk or almond milk. In order to be compliant with the law, soy milk should say imitation soy milk,” she said.

“We are partnering with any animal ag entity that wants to partner with us.”

However the real meat act is beef specific.

“By trading on beef’s good name, you are violating congressional intent of that law. These products that are labelled plant-based ground beef, there is a problem in the marketing,” she said.

The NCBA conducted consumer research and found people believe beef is nutritious but those questioned also ranked plant-based products as better for the environment and lower in sodium.

Beck said a four-ounce raw serving of ground beef has 75 milligrams of sodium while plant-based products have 220 to 620 percent more sodium in an equivalent serving size.

However, consumers should have choice and it is unknown how much market share imitation beef, chicken, pork or beverages have, she said.

U.S. beef consumption is more than 55 pounds per year, while the alternative products measure consumption in ounces, she said.

Labeling these products in Canada falls under the Food and Drugs Act and the Safe Food for Canadians Act, said Jennifer Babcock of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

If a product is created to look and taste like meat, it should be called simulated meat product, but enforcement is weak.

“It also has to have the statement, ‘contains no meat’ on the label,” she said.

“It does not appear on everything. This is where the grey area comes in. The companies of these products, they can take the position that their product does not have the appearance of meat and does not have to meet the simulated meat product composition labelling product,” she said.

“A lot of companies are taking the risk right now because (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) acts on an enforcement system where they don’t have to get any of these labels pre-approved. It is all based on someone calling in a complaint to CFIA.”

However, CFIA prioritizes complaints where health risks and safety are given priority.

“The enforcement side is not always able to keep up with what the regs say,” she said.

Canadian regulations clearly define meat, byproducts and simulated products, but the term burger, for example, has been accepted for items like veggie burgers.

CCA does not have a specific policy regarding alternative proteins and is discussing the issue with other groups to see how they are handling labelling questions.

“We are all for competition of the proteins because we have always had that and always will. Let’s make sure they are clearly identified to not mislead Canadian consumers,” Babcock said.

What consumers think

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association conducted a consumer poll to assess perceptions about plant-based meat products. More than 1,800 people were surveyed in an online questionnaire.

  • Less than half of those who took the survey understood the label term “plant-based beef” was intended to describe a vegetarian or vegan product. When they saw icons on packages that included the word beef or featured a cow icon, they thought that meant there were small amounts of beef present.
  • Forty-four percent believed plant-based products were lower in sodium.
  • Nearly two-thirds believed products from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and LightLife contained real beef or some form of animal byproduct.
  • More than one-third thought beef products and simulated products were equivalent in the amount of processing required.
  • More than half believed plant-based products were healthier.

Source: National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

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