Do we need the government to tell us what ‘meat’ means? Probably

How food companies use words like meat and milk is now being regulated.

A Missouri law went into effect on Tuesday August 28, mandating that only animal products can be labeled with the word “meat”. Language in the law also prohibits companies that sell non-animal food products from using words like “sausage” or “hot dog”, since these could be considered “misrepresenting a product as meat”. This is the first state law of this kind, but there is push for similar regulation other places. At the Federal level, the FDA is grappling with this issue, how to regulate lab-grown meat, and is also dealing with the related issue of regulating use of the word “milk” on plant-based products.

Food labeling is interesting politically because of where the various political affiliations end up. From a Libertarian perspective this can be viewed as a classic case of overregulation by the nanny state, which it can be argued, is unnecessary because most obviously most people know that almonds don’t make “milk” and soybeans don’t produce “meat”. On the other, side many groups like ranchers, dairy farmers, and business groups that tend to lean Republican, along with lots of Republican lawmakers, have been the ones leading the charge for these kind of legal labeling regulations in order to protect these industries. And on the other other, side some liberal outlets have been opposing or decrying the new attempts to narrow milk labeling as a violation of free speech. There’s also concern that limiting the use of these words will disadvantage the makers of plant based meat and milk substitutes. How the various parties prioritize free speech, limited regulation, and various businesses concerns provides some fascinating insight into their values.

However, this isn’t just theorehtically interesting, it's important in very real ways. Food labels have a huge impact on how people choose what to eat. Making a distinction between plant “milk” and actual milk can help people make a choice that has big nutritional impacts. For example plant based “milks” often have fewer calories and less fat than real milk, but many varieties are sweetened and can come with a lot of added sugar. Plant “milks” also generally have much less protein than real milk. Almond “milk” for example has almost no protein. It also has almost no almonds. Apparently most “almond milk” is only about 2% almonds with the bulk of the beverage made up of added water, various gums, and other ingredients.

People know that almonds don’t actually make milk, but making that clear on the label and calling it “almond juice” or “almond flavored drink”, makes is easier for people to make more informed shopping and eating choices. It’s also more accurate; words mean things, milk comes from animals, it’s not a generic word to describe any white consumable liquid.

Meat means something also, and this will likely end up being the more complicated distinction to draw. The Missouri law doesn’t just bar plant based products from being labeled as meat, it also prohibits lab grown meat from using the word on the label. Lab grown meat is meat in terms of its composition, it has the exact same proteins in the same structures as regular meat. A burger grown in a lab would be identical to a traditional burger in every way. But, lab grown meat is not produced by animals. The law against calling it meat makes sense because of the difference in how it’s produced, but it leaves open the question on how to accurately label it.

Missouri may have been the first to codify this but it’s unlikely that this will be the final word on the meat issues. Some other states will probably follow Missouri’s lead and create similar meat labeling laws, there will be a series of lawsuits (the makers of Tofurkey have already sued Missouri), but eventually the Federal Government will come up with a set of laws and rules that will preempt state regulations and allow for consistency nationwide for both meat and milk.