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What can be called meat? ‘Truth in Advertising’ bill aims to stop plant-based food companies from calling their products meat.

January 19, 2019

LINCOLN — Legislation introduced last week by State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue aims to protect consumers and promote “truth in advertising” by preventing plant-based food companies from billing their products as “plant-based meat.”

Blood’s bill, LB 14, would make it a Class I misdemeanor for “misleading or deceptive practices, including misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from livestock or poultry.”

Cattle outnumber Nebraskans by 4 to 1. They are the state’s single largest industry and the engine that powers the state’s economy. According to the Nebraska Beef Council, the multiplied impact of the $6.5 billion in cattle sales each year is $12.1 billion. Additionally, the state is home to about 3.1 million hogs and pigs at commercial operations in nearly every county. The poultry industry also plays a significant role in Nebraska’s economy. Because of this, Blood said she reached out to representatives from several state livestock and farm groups and got their input on the bill. The feedback she received was mostly positive.

“I think the livestock producers like the fact that someone is standing up for them,” Blood said. “We’re not doing this to get back at plant-based companies, but we care about what consumers buy and how it’s labeled.”

Interestingly enough, Blood said she is a vegetarian. The idea for the bill came to her over the summer while she was shopping at a grocery store. She said she noticed two customers holding a package of faux burgers designed to look like real meat, trying to decide if the product was actual hamburger or a veggie burger, and after the customers walked off, Blood said she inspected the package to find it was labeled “plant-based meat.”

“To me, it seemed like the person who was trying to retail the product was trying to purposefully confuse the consumer.” Blood said. “I don’t want to be the language police, but to me it doesn’t seem ethical — it’s not ethical marketing.”

And that’s why the text of LB 14 would define meat as “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof and does not include lab-grown or insect or plant-based food products.”

Since Nebraska already has a consumer protection law, the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Blood said a forthcoming white paper amendment would be introduced during the bill’s committee hearing to insert the bill’s language into that act. Should the bill become law, enforcement would then fall under the umbrella of the state attorney general’s office.

“It’s not going to be any different than if you were to pick up the phone and complain to the Better Business Bureau,” Blood said.

To Blood’s knowledge, this is the first time such a labeling law has been introduced in the Unicameral, but it is not a novel concept.

Last spring, France outlawed the use of words like “sausage,” “steak,” “burger,” “milk” and even “bacon-flavored” when referring to vegan versions of traditional meat- or dairy-based items. The U.S. Cattleman’s Association also in 2018 petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), asking for similar meat labeling regulations on the federal level.

NPR reported last summer that Missouri passed its own meat labeling law — the first of its kind — which prohibited plant-based products from using descriptors like “vegan sausage” or “ground beef-style,” with the consequences being fines or up to a year’s worth of jail time. However, the Missouri law was quickly met with a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and others, who argued that the law stifled competition for plant-based products and violated several plant-based product companies’ rights to free speech.

Blood’s bill will not be nearly as specific as the Missouri bill; however, distinctions she said are due to Missouri having its own meat inspection apparatus at the state level, whereas Nebraska does not.

While her bill does not strictly outlaw the use of words like “veggie burger” or “tofu dog,” she does hope it will settle the score so that packaging can’t say “plant-based meat.”

LB 14 was referred to the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Monday.

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