There’s a funny scene in the 2002 romcom My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which the main character, Toula, introduces her fiancé to her aunt and explains that he’s a vegetarian. The aunt asks what that means, and when he replies that it means he doesn’t eat meat, she says in shock, “What do you mean you don’t eat no meat?” They stare at each other for a tense second, and then she smiles, pats him on the shoulder, and says, “That’s OK, that’s OK, I make lamb.”
Not to kill the joke by explaining it, but lamb, obviously, is meat. Yet, in our age of meatless chicken nuggets, tofu hot dogs, and faux burgers that “bleed,” Toula’s aunt might have a point: What do you mean you don’t eat meat? What constitutes meat today?
What is meat?
Back in Old English, meat referred to “food in general.” From an ancient Germanic root, meat wasn’t about animal vs. vegetable but solid food vs. drink.
By the 1300s, meat began to narrow to its more current meaning of “the flesh of animals used for food” or “the edible part of anything, as a fruit or nut.” Some of its original sense lingers, though, when we refer to the meat of a fruit or nut.
How does the US legally define meat?
Legally, meat has a much for specific meaning. As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined meat in the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946:
… the edible part of the muscle of an animal, which is skeletal, or which is found in the tongue, in the diaphragm, in the heart, or in the esophagus, and which is intended for human food, with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of bone, skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels which normally accompany the muscle tissue and which are not separated from it in the process of dressing.
That definition was updated in 1994 to include meat products “derived from advanced meat/bone separation machinery, which is comparable in appearance, texture, and composition to meat trimmings and similar meat products derived by hand.”
The USDA has not yet specified plant-based products that imitate meat.
In the 2000s, amid growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans, several brands of plant-based “meat” products gained popularity. Today, stores sell everything from fake meatballs to Beyond Meat burgers, which “bleed” beet juice. Some researchers are developing the first laboratory-grown meat, or clean meat, as the Good Food Institute wants it to be called. All of these new products have many ranchers feeling nervous—and insistent we don’t call them meat.
Beef and farming industry workers in at least 12 states have lobbied lawmakers to draft bills that would make it illegal to use the word meat to describe burgers and sausages that are made from plant-based ingredients or are grown in labs, according to the New York Times in February 2019. The bills follow in the footsteps of a Missouri law, passed in May 2018, that became the first state law to ban the use of the word meat on any plant- or lab-based meat alternatives.
Meat, for these interests, refers to “flesh prepared from live animals.” But, what about fish and other seafood, which are live animals—but which many don’t call meat.
Which leads us to another tricky category: dairy.
What about other “fake” foods?
Meat producers aren’t the only ones anxious about the popularity of plant-based copycats. In 2017, a group of dairy farmers lost a court battle against the makers of Blue Almond almond milk, accusing Blue Almond Growers of deceptive labeling by calling their products milk.
Milk, after all, means “an opaque white or bluish liquid secreted by the mammary glands of a female mammal, serving for the nourishment of their young.” Like meat, milk is an old word in the language, recorded in Old English and passed down from an ancient Germanic root.
As FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb memorably said at a Politico summit in 2018, “An almond doesn’t lactate.” Nonetheless, after the ruling in the Blue Almond case was appealed, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that calling almond milk milk is not deceptive, as “no reasonable consumer could be misled by [the defendant’s] unambiguous labeling or factually accurate nutrition statements.”
With more types of plant-based milks like oat milk and hemp milk hitting the shelves, however, dairy farmers are hoping the FDA will issue new guidelines defining what can and cannot be called milk.
Who gets to decide what food is called?
It seems Europe finds more merit to arguments that consumers might be confused by references to meat or milk on plant-based foods.
The European Court of Justice ruled in 2017 that plant-based foods cannot carry the names butter, milk, or cheese. Similarly in 2018, France passed legislation prohibiting specific labels, such as steak, from being applied to plant-based foods (e.g., soy steak) because they can be misleading.
In the US, the main motivator behind the push to define meat and milk seems to be money. Sarah Sorscher, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the New York Times in February 2019 there is little evidence that consumers are confused by the current labels on products. Rather, meat producers are worried that lab-grown and plant-based meat could become a lower-cost alternative to their products. Regulating what can be called meat, then, might be more about keeping control of labeling and pushing competitors to change their products and marketing.
While the $13.7 billion plant-based food industry is unlikely to wipe out the $270 billion (in 2017) meat industry any time soon, the growth of meat alternative sales (4.7% each year between 2012–2017) does suggest that plant-based products are gaining serious ground with consumers.
There’s also the fact that the meat industry harms the environment and our health, when eaten in large amounts as is common in many American diets. These factors mean consumers who are buying meatless burgers are likely doing it with a purpose … and the meat industry isn’t going to fix that by changing the wording on a label.