It’s no longer obvious that one’s burger must come from an animal – and this has people in the industrial livestock world scared.
In recent years, both the United States and European Union have seen cases brought by advocates of animal-flesh meat against plant-based meat, which can be made of anything from genetically modified soy protein to oyster mushrooms. What is important here is the resemblance to the animal product; meat industries don’t want vegetarian products to be sold as “vegan burgers” or “vegetarian sausages”.
In 2019 alone, in more than 24 states in the US attempts were made to pass legislation restricting what could be labelled with meat terms. Last month, the European Union decided that meat-related descriptors were fine – though words such as “dairy”, “butter”, “cream imitation”, and “yogurt-style” were not to be used on labels for non-dairy products. These legislative manoeuvres are the last gasps of industrial animal agriculture, fighting for relevance in a food landscape that is shifting toward plant-based diets.
That shift is thanks to the news of livestock’s impact on climate breakdown, since a 2019 UN report said that a shift toward plant-based consumption would be necessary to stem the crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has also focused minds on the consequences of having a rapacious farm and agriculture industry, which breeds the conditions for disease. There is now a high demand for plant-based meats in Asia, the continent where 44% of the world’s meat is consumed.
Plant burgers and other products have begun to resemble their cow- and pig-based counterparts in appearance and content. We’re in a time of technological innovation in plant-based meat, as seen in Beyond Meat’s burgers and sausages, which are based on vegetable-derived proteins, as well as cultured or lab-made meat that is derived from actual animal cells.
These plant-based meats have been developed not to market to vegetarians or vegans with ethical or health concerns, but omnivores who want to cut back on meat consumption for environmental reasons. Those who traffic in beef steaks and pork sausages don’t want that to happen, and these pushes for labelling restrictions look like an attempt to slow down or distract from the need for further regulation of animal agriculture for its damaging effects on the environment. Any consumer “confusion” that lawmakers and lobbyists are citing as reason to keep these words off food labels has been manufactured.
The EU’s decision works in the plant-based meat producers’ favour and rightly so: one is hard-pressed to think that someone in the supermarket might truly mistake a Beyond Meat sausage for a pork-based one, especially when the labelling clearly states that it is “plant-based”. Words on a label are not likely to cause the meat aisle anarchy that was being predicted. As Jasmijn de Boo, the vice president of ProVeg International, an NGO that works toward food system change, told the New York Times: “Why change something to a ‘veggie disc’ or ‘tube’ instead of a sausage? It’s ridiculous.”
But while confusion is unlikely to be a consumer problem, understanding the power of imitation is key. In his book Meat Planet, Benjamin Wurgaft observes: “Cultured meat as a project responds to a specific moment in the history of meat, a moment that happens to be unique from the standpoint of human history.” Cultured and lab-made meat have been cultivated specifically to respond to the way meat is consumed in the west. Hence the focus on reproducing the types of food, like burgers and sausages, most often consumed at barbecues to celebrate the Fourth of July in the US, rather than creating “new” types of food with these new technologies.
In fact, ever since they made their debut in the early 20th century, meat-like proteins have been formed to approximate animal meat as much as possible. In his 1991 book Meat: A Natural Symbol, Nick Fiddes writes: “The range of soya-based meat-analogues and other substitutes available today testifies to the centrality of the concept of meat, not its dispensability.”
The significance here is of meat as a symbol of strength, virility and wealth, and what happens when that symbolic significance is transferred to products for which no animal was slaughtered. It’s this meaning that is the cause of all the fuss to attempt to devalue plant-based meat facsimiles. The meat industry understands that once the public becomes culturally accustomed to eating meat without eating meat then its days are truly numbered.
While there must be more transparency around the ecological impacts of the genetically modified soy and pea protein that are the basis of some of the most famous plant-based burgers of today, the fact that they have big meat producers in fear means that things are changing. We are moving toward a future in which the support and practices of small farmers, local agriculture and ecology – rather than the interests of massive, environmentally damaging meat lobbies – are the most important factors in how we build our meals.