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Where's the beef? Ranchers, companies at odds over what can be called 'meat'

Alice Mannette Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Brad Rayl, who owns Rayl Angus Ranch, talks about his registered Angus cattle at the ranch south of Buhler.

Brad Rayl thinks people know what meat is and what it is not.

But for Rayl, a cattle rancher in Buhler, things are a bit complicated. Rayl is also on the board of a vegetable protein manufacturing company in Hutchinson — Kansas Protein Foods.

While he feels people already can recognize the difference between animal meat and plant-based meat, he also thinks it makes sense for manufacturers of products that do not contain animal products to clarify what they are actually selling. 

"You ought to have a nutritional label and report to people what it is," Rayl said. "For those who don't want that (meat) in their diet, it's a good alternative."

Kansas Protein Foods places plant-based on their consumer label, Kansas Kitchen. Their products are described as "plant-based chicken strips," "flavored textured soy protein" and "plant-based sausage crumbles" and "flavored textured soy protein."

This places Rayl on both sides of a brewing national debate over what companies who make plant-based alternative meat products, like Beyond Burger and Tofurky, should call their product. It gets at a larger philosophical question that is pushing and pulling ranchers and producers alike: what is meat anyway?

Kansas is set to again wade into that conversation, with legislators in the Kansas House introducing legislation to halt the use of terms like "beef" or "pork" on all vegetable-based products sold in the Sunflower State, unless it is qualified in some way. The proposal follows the lead of at least seven other states who have taken similar actions.

Some groups believe product labeling needs to be so transparent as to eliminate the word beef from the product, even if the words plant-based or vegetable-based is in front of the beef or chicken.

The Kansas Livestock Association is concerned that consumers are being misled. 

"What concerns us is some of the companies that are offering these alternative products are not clear as to what the product is," said Matt Teagarden, the CEO of KLA. " 'Beef crumbles' is a caricature of steer and cattle."

Simple legislation, complicated debate

Brad Rayl daily feeds his registered Angus cattle protein cubes at Rayl Angus Ranch southwest of Buhler.

The legislation being proposed in Topeka is simple: Beyond Burger and other similar plant-based meat imitations could not use the terms beef, pork or sausage on their packaging unless another term, like meatless, is used. 

But the rest of the debate is more complicated. Proponents of plant-based protein products point to clear growth within the industry, with the market growing to more than $5 billion in the U.S. alone.

"Consumers have voted for plant-based foods with their wallets and have settled the labeling debate that some Kansas legislators seem to want to bring back up," said Michael Robbins, a spokesman for the Plant Based Food Association. "Plant-based food sales continue to grow, with sales up over 11% last year as a whole and plant-based meat sales up nearly 20%."

Meanwhile, major food brands and fast food retailers like McDonald's and Burger King have rolled out partnerships with plant protein manufacturers.

PepsiCo announced last month that they would be embarking on a joint venture with Beyond Meat to develop snack foods that use plant-based proteins. In addition, some companies use textured vegetable protein in their beef products to lower the cost.

Plant-based meat surge in demand, conventional meat up 3%

According to PBFA, plant-based products that label themselves as a type of meat account for 2% of retail packaged meat sales.

The largest market share of non-animal, vegetable products is in plant-based milk, with plant-based milk products totaling $2 billion in sales, according to 2019 data from PBFA, and plant-based meat approaching $1 billion. 

But the group says refrigerated, plant-based alternative meat products, like Beyond Burger, are seeing the biggest surge in demand — at a rate of more than 60%. 

This amount is far less than the $1 trillion in industry output the U.S. meat and poultry industry accounts for, according to 2016 statistics from the North American Meat Institute. 

Although the plant-based market is small, it is growing dramatically — up 18% in 2019. On the other hand, according to PBFA, conventional meat sales saw a slightly less than 3% growth rate during this same period.

Moreover, during COVID-19, according to data from PBFA, non-meat sales are up by more than 140%. These sales, once again, are outpacing increases in meat sales.

Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, acknowledged this growth and said that it added a new dimension to finding a labeling solution that works for everyone.

"Over the last year, you've had more industry folks, more traditional folks get involved in the alternative market. Us being good neighbors, we want to have conversations and to make sure that everybody is pleased moving forward," Rahjes said. "We do want to make sure that Kansans have a choice at the grocery store. But we also want to make sure things are labeled properly." 

Aaron Popelka, a lobbyist for the KLA, said that he believed the beef industry was ready to face off with their upstart competitors.

But as things currently stand, he said they were freeloading off of decades of marketing around the term beef and that the playing field was not level.

"If you believe in your product so much and believe that people really want it so much, then why do you have to use a meat term? Why do you have to build your reputation on the backs of our industry?" Popelka said.

'It has to be a level playing field'

The national association for plant-based foods, the PBFA, already has a set of standards for vegetable-based protein manufacturers to follow. Robbins said because these products are gaining in market share, it is imperative for them to label their products correctly.

"Plant-based meat companies have every incentive to label their foods with clear, non-misleading terms that make it clear that their products absolutely do not contain animal meat," he said. "Not having animal products is their entire business model and is what attracts consumers to their foods."

According to the PBFA, alternative-meat foods allow companies to reference in their marketing the type of animal-meat and form the product looks and, supposedly, tastes like, be it nuggets, strips or burgers. The package, however, must be clearly labeled plant-based, meatless or vegan.

But Popelka said that any changes to a label on beef or pork has to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which must ascertain that it is truthful and accurate. Plant-based products are governed by the Food and Drug Administration, even if they use terms that evoke their meat competitors.

The warehouse at Kansas Proteins Foods in Hutchinson holds many bags of Ultra Soy textured vegetable soy protein.

"We think we have a superior product," Popelka said. "We're willing to compete. But it has to be a level playing field." 

If the bill passes, in addition to having the vegetable-based product producer change their labeling, grocery stores in Kansas will have to buy products that have different labels than ones the same grocery chain sells in other states. 

"When states fail to heed our warnings that attempts to restrict the First Amendment rights of plant-based food companies will end badly and waste taxpayer dollars, we end up in court, where inevitably we win or the state folds and compromises with us, embracing our labeling standards, which they should have done in the first place," Robbins said. "In the meantime, the effort to restrict the free market is a waste of taxpayer dollars and the legislatures' and courts' time." 

Kansas seeks to avoid legal woes

At least seven states have passed similar laws to what is being considered in Kansas and over two dozen others have considered such a move.

Missouri is the standard-bearer on the issue, approving their own meat-labeling bill in 2018 as part of broader changes to the state's agricultural and conservation laws. 

But The Show-Me-State is also an example of the legal minefield that the issue opens up. 

Plant-based food companies, joined by civil liberties advocates, filed suit against the law shortly before it was due to take effect. A federal judge declined to halt its implementation while the trial proceeded, but a final verdict is still pending.

But results for beef boosters in other states are a mixed bag. A federal judge in Oklahoma upheld that state's law, agreeing with the argument that calling vegan products meat was "potentially misleading to a reasonable consumer." 

In Arkansas, however, vegan burgers are safe for the time being, with the law on hold pending a federal case.

The American Civil Liberties Union has argued the issue is a free speech matter, noting that companies need to have the freedom to be able to describe to customers what their product is.

"The law is really designed to allow the government to censor truthful speech and give an advantage to animal-based manufacturers ... and disadvantage to plant-based manufacturers," said Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas.

Avoiding a similar legal battle, Rahjes noted, was one reason why the bill was still in a holding pattern.

"I think that's why we're taking a very deliberate approach to this," he said. "We did take a look at other states where this was tried and litigated."

Popelka noted that the bill being considered in Kansas is less strident than the one passed in Missouri and elsewhere, meaning it stands a better chance of passing legal muster.

He also noted a potential for compromise with companies who make vegetable-based imitations, although the organization would not back down on several key points.

"We want to make sure that whatever we do stands up in court, as well," Popelka said.

Dairy farmers push for similar protections

Dairy farmers are in the same quandary as cattle ranchers. They say that milk comes from a living being, not a plant, and have pushed for similar labeling requirements for almond or soy milk.

"Milk is secretion from a mammal," said Stephanie Eckroat, the executive director of Kansas Dairy. "It's (milk) the wrong terminology. Labeling it (almond, soy) milk indicates it is milk, but it's not."

Eckroat said most Kansas dairy farmers support the correct labeling of any product. 

"There is not a percentage of real milk in these products," Eckroat said. "You can't squeeze milk out of an almond."

Labeling fight heads to Washington

The KLA prefers this issue be taken up at the national level, in an effort to standardize things. Because other states are filing legislation, they are hopeful someone in the FDA will carry the baton. But since the FDA is not doing so immediately, ranchers have started the process in Kansas.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who worked in feedlots and on family farms growing up, is looking into sponsoring a similar bill at the U.S. Senate.

"We want to make sure that consumers know what they are eating," said Tucker Stewart, the senior agricultural policy advisor to Marshall. "We don't want consumers to pick up a plant protein and think it is meat."

In October 2019, Marshall, while in the U.S. Congress, introduced the “Real MEAT Act of 2019.” This act was to amend the way the FDA labeled beef, stating that beef was the flesh of cattle.

The timeframe of Marshall's bill in the Senate is not known. Neither is the timeframe for the Kansas bill.

Rahjes said that stakeholders in Kansas are still hashing out a deal and noted that legislators may not move forward with the legislation until 2022, the second year of the legislative session.

"If we have that breakthrough we will run it right away," he said. "If not, it'll be one of the first things for next year."

Robbins still cautions Kansas legislators about moving forward, saying that it will only cost taxpayers money. He said changing labels would inject confusion into the marketplace where consumers are favoring plant-based products more and more. 

"The Kansas labeling bill is a solution in search of a problem," Robbins said. "Consumers have voted for plant-based foods with their wallets."