Anik Joshi: Consumers aren’t “meatheads”

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 10:02am

Anik Joshi

Anik Joshi Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

I’ve never been to Missouri, but I've enjoyed many things from the state like Kansas City barbecue and the river. I assume Missouri, like the rest of the country, is filled with reasonably intelligent people. This is why I was flummoxed to learn that the state government in Missouri is regulating the use of the word “meat.” The legislation makes it illegal to call a product meat unless it was “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Punishments for breaking the law will include a fine of up to $1,000 and can bring a jail sentence of up to one year.

Proponents of the legislation claim using the term “meat” in reference to a product that does not come from an animal will confuse customers. But this is absurd ­— when a consumer buys plant-based meat that is labeled as such, it doesn’t strike me as particularly outlandish to assume they know what they are buying. Indeed, the company that produces Tofurky brought a lawsuit to this effect and litigation was still ongoing as of October 2019. Tofurky argued against it primarily on First Amendment grounds, but also that it didn’t mislead consumers. Both of these are justified points. Meat is more than what comes from poultry — as the complaint says, meat has been used to refer to the flesh in fruit and nuts. In addition, if someone buys something labeled “plant-based meat” and are surprised by the lack of dead animal flesh, no legislation can help them. At that point, neither can God. 

Missouri is not alone in this kind of bad behavior with meat labeling. Arkansas passed a version of this bill that restricts the use of terms like “burger” and “pork” and others that have “been used or defined historically in reference to a specific agricultural product.” Thankfully, this bill was stopped by a federal judge who decided to grant a preliminary injunction. Again, it was Tofurky who sued, and although it worked out, costly litigation is not the answer to this kind of behavior.

Part of the problem is that this practice is not limited to the state level and is also not isolated to meat. During his time in office, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., pushed to “modernize” dairy standards. This included a call to standardize definitions of words like milk. One such reason for this was things like almond milk. Government workers were worried about people being misled that almond milk was akin to milk from a cow. This was such a worry that Dr. Gottlieb went so far as to clarify that “an almond doesn’t lactate.” The good doctor was absolutely correct — almonds don’t lactate. However, this seems like a weird way to delineate what is and what isn’t milk. Coconut milk, for example, is made by grating coconut — a practice which goes back hundreds of years. Because lactation isn’t involved, does this mean it’s not milk? Of course not. 

These policies are all written in the language of protecting consumers, but it’s worth remembering former President Ronald Reagan’s famous maxim: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” None of these policies are actually about protection, because this isn’t something people need protection from. If you can be trusted to put your pants on in the morning without adult supervision, you don’t need the state or federal government telling you what you can and cannot call meat or milk. People and firms should not be allowed to request the government to attempt cheap protectionist scams for the sake of the cattle industry. That is exactly what these bills are doing and why they are being backed by big agriculture lobbying at every turn. Exactly like in this case, where the Missouri bill was backed by the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association.

The American public isn’t a bunch of morons. They don’t need their government to protect them from almond milk and tofu burgers. They do need their government to protect them from predatory firms and industry attempting to capture the entire regulatory structure. Unfortunately, if past policymaking is any indication, they won’t get that.

Anik Joshi can be reached at anikj@umich.edu.