Veggie burger opens new divide in the US

David Millward
Impossible Foods meatless Whopper

The veggie burger has emerged as the latest battleground over traditional American values.

Several states have passed labelling laws banning the use of the word meat - and even meat-related terms such as burger or hot dog - for plant-based products.

The row has pitched high-tech food innovators against the ranchers' trade body US Cattlemen's Association and mainly conservative politicians in America's rural heartland.

Environmentalists extol the planet-friendly virtues of plant-based meat, arguing that it is responsible for far lower methane emissions than cattle.

From the other corner conservatives, like Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz, have been scathing about vegan food. 

During his bitter election battle with Beto O'Rourke, he claimed on Twitter that the Democrats would ban barbecues across the state.

Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Arkansas have led the way in passing strict labelling laws, imposing fines on companies who  transgress.

In America's cattle-producing states, the legislation has broad support, said Billy Hudson, a Republican state senator who piloted the law through the Mississippi legislature.

“The intent of this legislation was to help consumers better identify their foods. We don’t want fake meat confused with real meat.  

"If there is a product on the shelf made from bugs, plants or grown in a lab, and someone wants to buy it, Mississippi wants that to happen. But the packaging material should not be misleading or deceptive. 

"The legislation passed the Senate and House without opposition. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals all voted for it."

Andy Berry, the executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association, described the measure as purely a piece of consumer protection legislation.

"The beef industry has never been worried about competition. We produce a high-quality product.

"I like vegetables too,  but just don't call them meat. 

"My family was in the Chevrolet business from 1936 to 2009. We would never put a Corvette sticker on a Malibu."

Cattle in Louisiana where new meat labelling laws have been introduced Credit: Nicole Craine/Bloombert

However, the Plant Based Foods Association and one of its members,  Upton's Naturals, are challenging the law in court, arguing it infringes the US First Amendment which guarantees free speech.

"We have been in business for 13 years and we have never had anyone say they have bought our products unknowingly," said Nicole Sopko, the company's vice president

"We are not trying to trick people. We are proud of what we produce.

"This is a protectionist move by the meat industry: it is trying to limit the competition."

Last month another challenge was filed in Arkansas on behalf of a company producing Tofurky. 

That lawsuit is backed by the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defence Fund.

Underpinning the battle is ranchers' alarm at soaring demand for alternatives to meat which, according to the Plant Based Food Association, has seen sales grow five times faster than the food sector as a whole.

Last month it said the plant-based food market was worth $4.5 billion a year, representing an 11 per cent increase over the previous 12 months.

The strength of the flourishing new industry was underlined when Beyond Meat, one of the biggest producers of vegan burgers and sausages, went public in May.

Shares rose 160 per cent on the first day's trading as investors piled in.

Its main rival, Impossible Foods, which has been selling its laboratory-produced meat alternatives since 2016, has even teamed up with Burger King to offer "Impossible Whoppers".

The company broke new ground by using heme - a protein which is found in soybean plants - to replicate blood. It means that the patty has the appearance of a meat equivalent, including being red in the middle for those who prefer their burgers underdone.

Ranchers argue that consumers are being misled by the use of the term meat when no animal was slaughtered.

But this was denied by an Impossible Foods spokesman.

"Consumers are not at all confused about the fact that plant-based meat contains no animals. That's precisely why they're buying it at record levels," she said.