Meat War of Words

This Jan 9, 2018, photo shows the Impossible Burger at Stella’s, in Bellevue, Neb., which is a burger is made from plant protein.

Tofurky wasn’t keeping cattle ranchers awake at night.

For decades, veggie burgers were the token offering to vegans at the backyard barbecue, and Tofurky was the Thanksgiving benediction to the meat-free loved ones in our lives.

But as plant-based meat goes from an afterthought to a financial juggernaut that aims to change how most people eat, the opposition has suddenly awakened: Many of the country’s 800,000 cattle ranchers have declared war on newcomers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which use technology to make products that hew closely to the taste and texture of meat.

“First-generation” veggie burgers and similar products are caught in the crossfire.

Just this year, officials in nearly 30 states, including Nebraska, have proposed bills to prohibit companies from using words such as meat, burger, sausage, jerky or hot dog unless the product came from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered in a traditional way.

Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming have already passed such laws. In Missouri, the first state where the ban took effect, violators incur a $1,000 fine and as much as a year in prison.

The states, in most cases backed by cattlemen’s associations, say the laws are needed because consumers are confused. The “second-generation” meatless offerings, they say, cross a line when they make unsubstantiated health claims (many have long lists of processed ingredients and are high in sodium) and when the packaging is unclear.

“Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles has a picture of a cow on the front and says ‘plant-based’ in very small lettering at the bottom,” said Mike Deering, a cattle rancher and the executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association. “I’m a dad and I’m going through the grocery store before one of my boys has a meltdown, and (if) I pick up that package that says beef with a picture of a cow on it, I’m going to buy it.”

This isn’t quite a David vs. Goliath fight.

The cattle associations have enormous political power, and several of the top veggie brands such as Morningstar Farms and Boca are owned by food giants such as Kellogg and Kraft Heinz. Notably, the major meat processors — Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, for instance — aren’t taking sides, relying on ranchers for traditional meat but also investing heavily in these alternatives they believe consumers desire.

The future of ranching faces a big threat if plant-based meat becomes a mainstay of the American diet.

Sales of meat alternative grew 30% in 2018 over the previous year, according to Nielsen Product Insider. Although the meat alternative market could grow to be worth $140 billion globally in 10 years, according to Barclays, that still would be only a fraction of the current $1.4 trillion global meat market.

Traditional animal agriculture is looking to the lessons learned by the dairy industry, which saw cow’s milk sales decline by $1.1 billion last year, much of that business scooped up by alternative milks such as almond and oat. And as the stock price of Beyond Meat, which went public this year, has soared, some of the biggest retailers and restaurants in America have gotten on board with plant-based alternatives.

KFC announced Monday that it’s the first national fast-food chain to introduce a plant-based chicken in partnership with Beyond Meat. The product is being tested so far only at one location, in Atlanta.

In September, Impossible Burgers will roll out in grocery stores. Subway has announced meatless meatballs, Carl’s Jr. and sister company Hardee’s have boarded the meatless meat wagon, Dunkin’ introduced its Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich, and Burger King expanded the reach of its Impossible Whopper to all franchises.

On July 22, Tofurky joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations to file a lawsuit claiming that Arkansas’ new labeling law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Tofurky chief executive Jaime Athos said that if Tofurky loses in court-ordered mediation, plant-based meats will have to be repackaged to reflect approved wording, an expensive endeavor.

Athos prefers a focus on the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

“The meat industry’s chickens are coming home to roost. Their industry was propped up by agricultural subsidies and misrepresented the true nutritional value and necessity of meat in the American diet,” he said.

Tofurky has seen double-digit growth in recent years.

“There’s no question we’re seeing more attention to the category,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Food Association, which advocates for the leading plant-based food companies. “To have a company like Tofurky have an easy time talking to Walmart? This wasn’t the case five or 10 years ago.”

Morningstar Farms, which has been around for more than 40 years, has shifted from being just in grocery stores to being in restaurants, universities, K-12 schools and hospitals. Boca, owned by Kraft Heinz, went through a major brand refresh with new recipes and retro-cool packaging updates in 2018.

For Jan Dutkiewicz, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, these first- and second-generation plant-based companies make strange bedfellows, with very different agendas.

“For Tofurky and Morningstar, customers were more vegans and vegetarians, not mainstream consumers. They weren’t trying to compete with meat on taste,” he said. “Impossible and Beyond are not an outgrowth of Tofurky. Their aim is to mimic meat as closely as possible. They are trying to supplant meat entirely.”

Plant-based items that closely mimic meat are seen as a promising new revenue stream for most big meat and food companies. These giants are beginning to reposition themselves as “protein companies.”

This month, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, announced that it would launch a plant-protein line.

Tyson Foods is debuting its own meatless-protein line. Perdue has launched blended meat-and-veggie chicken nuggets, tenders and patties. Nestlé is rolling out a plant-based line, and Hormel’s Applegate has debuted blended meat-and-mushroom burgers.

Ranchers fear that insufficient labeling will not distinguish between traditional animal agriculture and these products that do not yet have a track record for safety and human health.

“We are at the mercy of the market, at the mercy of the weather,” rancher Deering said. “We represent some of the most resilient people on the planet who can compete any day of the week and twice on Sunday. This is about consumer protection.”

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