Farmers push for strict definitions of ‘meat and milk’ foods

They see new foods as a threat and want feds to restrict the words to products from animals.

Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Can meat grown in a lab still be called meat? Can milk that comes from nuts rather than cows bear the name milk? And can mayonnaise made without eggs still be called mayo?

From oat milk to grain-based burger patties to mayo made from yellow peas and canola oil, alternative products now populate nearly every aisle of the grocery. Makers of alternative foods, usually from plants, use the terms to signal how their products can be used.

But farmers see the new foods as a threat and want the federal government to restrict words like milk, cheese and meat to products that come from animals.

The FDA appears poised to reconsider terms. “It’s important that we take a fresh look at existing standards of identity in light of marketing trends and the latest nutritional science,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in March.

Some see a risk of confusing consumers, who may think the new products have the same origin as the ones they’ve long known. Chocolate-flavored dairy milk is called chocolate milk, for instance, but cashew milk is strained from a mixture of ground cashew paste and water.

Another part of the confusion is tied to the origin of the new products. In meats, the new alternatives that are coming out of labs still use animal cells.

The debate intensified recently when Cargill, Tyson and billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson invested in Memphis Meats, a company based in Berkeley, California, that takes animal cells and cultivates them into meat. It produced a meatball in 2016 and its first poultry product last year.

Minnetonka-based Cargill is one of the world’s largest processors of beef, so cattle ranchers took its involvement as a serious omen: It’s not a matter of if, but how soon, lab-raised meat becomes a player in the market.

In February, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department to limit the definition of “beef” and “meat” to products made from live animals slaughtered in a “traditional manner.”

Asked about the debate, Cargill referred questions to the North American Meat Institute, a trade group for meat processors that opposes the Cattlemen’s Association’s stance.

“Science evolves, so does technology,” NAMI wrote in its own comments to the USDA. “The term ‘meat’ was fairly broadly defined by the agency decades ago, and imposing today the artificial limitation requested by the petition could impede tomorrow’s progress.”

Plant-based alternatives are not new, but the rate of food innovation is accelerating not just in quantity, but quality, said Josh Resnik, chief executive of Wedge Community Co-op, a natural foods grocer in Minneapolis. “The number of new items in those categories is staggering,” he said. “The quality … compared to five or 10 years ago is night and day.”

The growth in alternatives dovetails with another consumer trend: rising demand for protein. American consumers are looking for new ways to pack it into their diets, said David Portalatin, a food industry adviser at the NPD Group, a consumer research firm. “Plant-based is growing because it is all about protein,” he said.

A survey published last week by NPD Group found that 86 percent of people who buy plant-based alternatives are not vegans or vegetarians. Instead, they are meat eaters adding these products into their existing diets. Packaged food companies, like meatpacker Hormel Foods Corp., recognize this trend and have broadened their portfolio to include non-meat products.

Last year, the Austin, Minnesota, company launched a new beverage called Evolve made from pea protein. The brand is run by its CytoSport business, which also makes Muscle Milk, a protein shake derived from dairy.

“With the groundswell of more people entering the market, plant-based proteins really jumped off the page with a great deal of momentum,” said Jason Hull, Evolve’s brand manager. “We saw this brand as having an emotional tie with consumers, rooted not only in great taste, but in living that sustainable life.”

And while many consumers may just mix plant-based options into their protein repertoire, there is evidence of alternatives replacing traditional meat and dairy products. Plant-based meat alternatives claimed 2.1 percent of U.S. sales in refrigerated and frozen meat products, according to a Nielsen data study commissioned last year by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute.

Meanwhile, plant-based milk composed 9.3 percent of milk sales while plant-based cheeses, yogurts and ice creams are growing 20 percent annually. “The meat people look and see that nearly 10 percent of dairy sales are now going to plant-based products and are thinking ‘That could happen to us,’?” said Dick Wegener, a food lawyer at Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin last year introduced the Dairy Pride Act to pressure the FDA into enforcing its definition of milk. If passed, “milk” would be reserved for products from one or more lactating cows.

The FDA has been relatively hands-off with the growth in nondairy milk products. “There has been a tacit understanding that consumers are not misled by those terms,” Wegener said. “If consumers were being confused, the FDA might have been more solicitous of these petitions that have been filed.”

Many of the FDA’s traditional food definitions, called Standards of Identity, are decades old and are essentially recipes. Milk was first federally defined 45 years ago while cheese was defined 77 years ago.

Groups pushing for enforcement of these definitions often cite consumer protection concerns. And while these standards may have originally been designed to protect consumers, Wegener said, they’ve become vehicles for industry to entrench their products and protect themselves from competition. “These events bring into clear focus the shortcomings of the role Standards of Identity really plays in today’s food world,” Wegener said. “They are largely outdated and the argument can be made that they stifle innovation and they prevent healthy foods from coming to market.”

The FDA’s Gottlieb, in his March comments, said the agency may revisit standards that are no longer necessary. He added, “We also see a need for flexibility in standards that allow better public health outcomes by encouraging manufacturers to produce more healthful foods that are still affordable.”

Grocers and consumer researchers believe people who buy alternative products educate themselves about what the foods actually are and know what they are getting.

“We have got to give the American consumer a little more credit. They are more informed than at any other time in history,” Portalatin said. “It’s on the manufacturer to establish a level of trust.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
US board says Boeing Max likely hit a bird before 2019 crash

U.S. accident investigators disagree with Ethiopian authorities over the cause of a 2019 Boeing 737 Max crash.

Paddywack co-owner Shane Somerville with the 24-hour pet food pantry built by a local Girl Scout troop outside of her store on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
An out-paw-ring of support: Mill Creek pantry feeds pets, day or night

With help from local Girl Scouts, the Mill Creek pet food store Paddywack is meeting the need for pet supplies in a pinch.

Kelly Cameron is the woodworker behind Clinton-based business Turnco Wood Goods. (David Welton)
Whidbey woodworkers turn local lumber into art

In the “Slab Room” at Madrona Supply Co., customers can find hunks of wood native to the south end of Whidbey Island.

Siblings Barbara Reed and Eric Minnig, who, co-own their parent’s old business Ken’s Camera along with their brother Bryan, stand outside the Evergreen Way location Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, in Everett, Washington. After five decades in business, Ken’s will be closing its last two locations for good at the end of the year. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Print it or lose it: Ken’s Camera closes after decades caught on film

The local legend, processing film photos since 1971, will close its locations in Mount Vernon and Everett at the end of 2022.

Store owner Jay Behar, 50, left, and store manager Dan Boston, 60, right, work to help unload a truck of recliners at Behar's Furniture on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Behar's Furniture on Broadway in Everett is closing up shop after 60 years in business. The family-owned furniture store opened in 1963, when mid-century model styles were all the rage. Second-generation owner, Jay Behar says it's time to move on. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Behar’s Furniture in Everett closing after 60 years

“It’s time to move on.” The small family-owned store opened in 1963 and grew to cover an entire city block.

Katy Woods, a Licensed Coach, Branch Manager, and experienced Banker at Coastal Community Bank.
Coastal Community Bank Offers Classes for Businesses

To support local business owners and their teams, Coastal offers complimentary Money… Continue reading

Innovative Salon Products online fulfillment employees, from left, Stephanie Wallem, Bethany Fulcher, Isela Ramirez and Gretchen House, work to get orders put together on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, at the company’s facility in Monroe, Washington. The company began including pay, benefits and perks to its job listings over a year ago, well ahead of the new statewide mandate to include a pay range on job postings at companies with over 15 employees. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New state law requires employers to give pay range in job postings

Washington’s new pay transparency law aims to narrow wage gaps based on race or gender — though some companies may seek loopholes.

Nelson Petroleum on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘Egregious:’ Everett fuel company repeatedly broke water standards

Nelson Petroleum faces a lawsuit from an Everett Mall Way strip mall over discharges into a nearby wetland.

Mike Lane and son Dave Lane, right, in front of their family store Everett Vacuum with their popular sign and saying, “everything we sell sucks” on Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Suck it up — and shop it up — at Everett Vacuum

After 80 years on Broadway, the family-run store with the “Everything we sell sucks” sign moved to Hewitt Avenue.

Customers leave J. Matheson Gifts Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett’s longtime J. Matheson gift store finds new life in Seattle

Miranda Matheson had her mother’s blessing when she opened a new J. Matheson Urban Gifts & Kitchens in Green Lake.

Carla Fisher and Lana Lasley take a photo together with Tommy Chong during 210 Cannabis Co’s grand opening Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Arlington, Washington. Fisher and Lasley waited in line solely to get a photo with Chong. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Stillaguamish Tribe opens retail cannabis shop

More than 1,500 attended a grand opening on Dec. 10. The venture comes amid a boom in tribal cannabis stores.

Franco Montano works on putting together a wreath at his workshop on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022 in Monroe, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Monroe man runs taco truck by day, makes 100 wreaths by night

Franco Montano, a former factory worker, started making the holiday wreaths in 2008. He has expanded into a thriving family business.