“Plant-based patties” accepted as “meat”––& that scares the meat industry too
OAK HARBOR, Washington––The entire future of animal agriculture and plant-based alternatives flashed before our eyes a few days ago at the Safeway supermarket.
Nobody died, certainly no animals, but that was just the point.
We were at Safeway buying groceries a few minutes before the shift change for our checker, a bleary-eyed, weary millennial, working briskly but as if on autopilot.
Picking up a package of Beyond Meat burgers, the checker asked, “Would you like your meat put in a plastic bag?”
What the label says doesn’t matter
Beth answered without correcting her, while––as a lifelong vegetarian––I did a double-take. I could read the green letters spelling out “Plant-Based Burger Patties” upside down and backward from six feet away.
The checker continued checking out the groceries, oblivious to her misidentification of the product. Tattooed, with a nose ring, wearing a cloth belt, plastic hair band, and canvas sneakers, the checker might have been a vegan––or just another young woman conforming to the norms of her peers.
No matter. To the checker, if the product looked like meat, was packaged as meat, and was sold in the meat department, it was meat, even if it really was entirely made from plant material. What the package label said in big, bright green words mattered not at all.
What matters is where the product is shelved
The incident told us, instantaneously, that the money and effort the animal agriculture industry is putting into legal and political battles around the world over plant-based product labeling is misplaced investment in a lost cause.
Even to supermarket checkers, whether a product is called something associated with burgers, steaks, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, fish, or poultry is of nil concern. What matters is where it is shelved.
If the product is shelved off in the side aisle “health food” department, it will be perceived as something weird and different, stocked for maybe 1% of all customers.
If the product is shelved, as tofu and tempeh often are, in an ethnic foods section, it will be perceived as ethnic, and will be purchased mostly by ethnic customers, plus a few others who cook outside the mainstream styles.
If the product is shelved, like Beyond Meat “Plant-Based Burger Patties,” or Just Mayo, alongside the conventional animal products and byproducts that ordinary middle Americans eat, ordinary middle Americans will eat it, and come back for more.
This is actually not a new lesson. The now-40-odd-year-old Morningstar Farms division of Kellogg’s demonstrated long ago that meatless products can compete with prepared meat products for market share on near-even terms, if placed in the same freezer sections as meat products of similar texture and appearance.
But Morningstar Farms never scared the hell out of the animal agriculture industry the way Beyond Meat products have in supermarkets and the Impossible Burger has in restaurants, including 570 Red Robin franchises, 400 White Castle franchises, and now 59 Burger King franchises in and around St. Louis, as a trial run for an expected nationwide introduction later in 2019.
Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger are scaring the animal agriculture industry because, offered right alongside real dead meat, they produce the same non-reaction we saw in the Safeway supermarket checker. Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger literally replace meat with a plant-based alternative without most people even noticing the difference.
Retail sales of meat substitutes grow at 10% per year
“Although only 6% of Americans say they’re vegetarian, around a quarter of consumers polled by Nielsen in 2017 said they wanted more plant-based proteins on the shelves,” recalled Jon Tomac for Mother Jones in January 2019.
“Retail sales of meat substitutes in the United States grew 30% from 2014 to 2016,” Tomac continued, “and they are expected to rise by 74% over current levels by 2023, to about $2.5 billion, according to research firm Euromonitor International. While that’s still piddling compared with the $200 billion in products sold by U.S. meat companies each year, the success of these substitutes appears to have come as a threat to livestock producers.”
No complaints from consumers
This is somewhat an understatement. Missouri enacted legislation in 2018 which subjects anyone using the word “meat” to describe a food “not derived from livestock or poultry” to a fine of $2,000 and a year in jail. The Missouri law presumably applies even to “nut meat,” a term in common commercial use for at least 150 years.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Tofurky company, and the nonprofit Good Food Institute are now challenging the Missouri law in court as an alleged violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The Missouri state consumer protection bureau, Tomac mentioned, “couldn’t find any complaints from people who had mistaken a meat alternative for the real deal.”
Animal agriculture in a world of panic
The Missouri legislature acted in emulation of a French law, adopted in May 2018, which imposes a fine of up to €300,000 fine on anyone who markets non-meat or non-dairy products using traditional terms for meat and dairy products on the label.
Without waiting for Canada to pass similar legislation, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in January 2019 reportedly began ordering makers of plant-based, dairy-free “vegan cheese” to remove the word “cheese” from their labels and advertisements.
Then, during the first week in April 2019, the European Parliament agriculture committee “approved a ban on producers of vegetarian food using nomenclature usually deployed to describe meat,” reported Daniel Boffey, Brussels correspondent for The Guardian.
European Court of Justice ruled to protect dairy from tofu
“The protected designations would include steak, sausage, veal, burger and hamburger,” Boffey mentioned, “under a revised regulation that passed with 80% approval. The measures will now be voted on by the full parliament after May’s European elections, before being put to member states and the European commission.
“The decision to protect meat-related terms and names ‘exclusively for edible parts of animals’ was firmly opposed by Greenpeace and Birdlife, who insisted it presented a blow against sustainable food,” Boffey continued.
The European Parliament agriculture committee recommendation would expand a 2017 ruling by the European Court of Justice that plant-based products cannot be sold as milk or butter.
That ruling, Boffey said, came in response to “complaints from German competition regulators about the German firm Tofutown’s tofu butter, veggie cheese and rice spray cream products.”
“Moving toward plant-based diet at terrific speed”
Said Molly Scott Cato, a Green Party member of the European Parliament who represents South West England & Gibralter, and was among the dissenting votes on the agriculture committee, “The suspicion is that this has come from the meat industry out of panic at the fact that young people are moving away from eating meat. It is a clear indication that they are worried about their market being undercut – and that’s quite a good sign. There certainly didn’t seem to be a lot of consumer demand for it. It wasn’t as if people were buying veggie burgers and asking: ‘Where’s my meat?’ People are moving increasingly towards a plant-based diet, and young people at a terrific speed.”
But Cato hopes “the name prohibition could lead to food producers giving up on trying to emulate the meat-eating world,” wrote Boffey.
Vegan sector protecting turf too
Ironically, much of the vegan sector also seems obsessed lately with protecting their traditional turf, including thousands of highly specialized small producers of items sold mostly by food cooperatives, health food stores, vegan restaurants and delicatessens, via the Internet, and for the biggest, Whole Foods Market.
The notion that plant-based vegan foods might be catching on with millions of non-vegans through the investment of mainstream companies in advertising, packaging, and subsidizing supermarket shelf placement may threaten the slim profits of the established “counter-establishment” companies––or, alternatively, might open new markets for them.
The real threat to many vegans seems to be that they might lose their aura of counter-cultural exclusivity and come to be perceived by the mainstream as a part of it, even if as a turbulent eddy.
“Lifestyle & philosophy”
“Veganism is not a diet – it’s a lifestyle and a philosophy,” sniffed British vegan journalist. Chas Newkey-Burden. “It is about more than what we put on our plates: it is a daily endeavor for compassion towards animals in all aspects of our lives. The hope that if we buy enough vegan products that capitalism’s merciless exploitation of the vulnerable will magically end is fairy-tale stuff. Talk of ‘ethical capitalism’ is as laughable as the meat industry’s claims of ‘humane slaughter.’”
Reality, though, is that even though Donald Watson had a lifestyle in mind when he founded the Vegan Society in Britain in 1944, the focal part of the vegan lifestyle has always been practicing veganism as a diet. This is exactly as “veganism” is understood by most people who buy “vegan” products such as Beyond Meat patties and Impossible Burgers, even though they usually are not even vegetarians.
“Vegan” is now a food choice
“Vegan” is now a food choice, with space on many restaurant menus right alongside “Mexican,” “Asian,” “Mediterranean,” and yes, even “Steaks,” “Fish,” and “Poultry.”
And that is exactly how millions of people throughout the developed world are coming to eat far fewer animal products and byproducts than their parents and grandparents: not by trudging off into a “vegan ghetto,” securely defended by the “vegan police,” but rather by noticing something else that looks good wherever they normally go to eat.
“The number of vegans in the U.K. has grown fourfold in the past four years, from 150,000 to 600,000, according to the Vegan Society,” Newkey-Burden continued, disregarding where all those new vegans came from. “We are a regular feature in the media. The shelves of supermarkets and menus of restaurants increasingly cater for us.”
“Compassion & rebellion”
Yet instead of celebrating success, Newkey-Burden lamented, “It’s a tragedy that veganism, once a byword for compassion and rebellion, has instead become so consumerist and conformist. Neither approach will help the animals.”
Note that “rebellion” is usually synonymous with “bloodbath.”
The animals not being eaten because mainstream people are eating vegan are of course unable to testify, because they are not being raised on factory farms alongside the millions who are still sold to slaughter.
“It’s great to be around at a time when being vegan is so much easier than it used to be,” Newkey-Burden finished, “but vegans must remember what it’s about. I can’t put it better than the Unoffensive Animal group did at an animal rights march in London last summer: ‘We’re not here to make the vegan food aisles bigger, this is about animal liberation.’”
Moving vegan food out of the vegan aisles into the rest of the supermarket
Say what?! Nothing does more to liberate animals from animal agriculture than not only making vegan food aisles bigger, but moving vegan food out of the vegan food aisles to where we found the Beyond Meat “Plant-Based Burger Patties” at Safeway, where they are already replacing quite a lot of beef in average Middle American diets.
Meanwhile, snarled vegan blogger Isabelle Z from San Carlos, California, on April 5, 2019, “Burger King is patting itself on the back for adding the Impossible Whopper to its menu in some locations, but what they’re not openly sharing is that the new meatless patty used in the sandwich is full of GMOs and made with toxins like MSG.”
Translation: the Impossible Whopper is made in part with yeast genetically modified to look, taste, and smell more like meat to the meat-eaters who are persuaded to eat it instead of flesh from a dead cow.
The Impossible Whopper also includes monosodium glutamate, a seasoning staple of Chinese cooking, in particular, considered “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration when consumed in moderation.
Vegan police lack jurisdiction
The anxiety of hardcore vegans about veganism going mainstream mirrors that of the meat industry much more than any vegan police officer is likely to recognize, or admit.
“The meat lobby is also increasingly nervous about ‘fake meat,’” recently noted Politico senior staff writer Michael Grunwald, meaning, he explained, “cell-based meat startups that are not even selling to the public yet, but are already producing meat in laboratories that is molecularly identical to the stuff in supermarkets without raising or killing animals.
“Meat producers don’t want their products to be viewed like fossil fuels—useful but dirty,” Grunwald observed. “And beef producers don’t want to follow the path of coal, which is hemorrhaging market share because it is the dirtiest fossil fuel.”
But Beyond Meat, the Impossible Burger, and more products yet to come are sending meat producers to join coal anyhow, and even the vegan police have no authority to stop the transition.