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Livestock Industries' Wishlist: No Dead Animal, No 'Meat' On The Label


Major changes underway in the meat industry that's causing cattle ranchers and slaughterhouses, meat-eaters and regulators to rethink what is meat. In the not so distant future, some companies hope to produce meat on an industrial scale without slaughtering animals. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the first challenge is to regulate plant-based products that taste, look and feel a lot like meat.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Veggie burgers used to attract a niche market, but Savannah Blevins (ph), a server at this old neighborhood bar and grill in Kansas City, Mo., called, Charlie Hooper's, says meatless burgers are catching on, even here.

Has anybody ever ordered this Impossible Burger?

SAVANNAH BLEVINS: Yeah. All the time. It's a vegetarian burger, but people - I had a vegetarian actually turn it away because it reminded them so much of meat, they sent it back. Yeah. It's delicious.

MORRIS: The industry producing plant-based meat is exploding, growing 20 percent a year.

TODD BOYMAN: The business is booming. (Laughter). Yeah. We just can't keep up. We're actually having to expand our production facilities to keep up with the demand that's out there for this type of food.

MORRIS: That's Todd Boyman, co-founder of Hungry Planet, which makes vegetarian products that mimic beef and chicken. It primarily uses soy protein. Others use pea protein, combined with other ingredients, to make food that looks and tastes a lot more meaty than, say, tofu dogs or black bean burgers.

BOYMAN: And when you look at how conventional meat is produced, it's plant protein going through a cow, a chicken or pig, et cetera, and getting turned into, you know, a different form. All of us in this category, we're doing the same thing, but we're doing it without the services of animals.

MORRIS: Which also cuts way down on greenhouse gas emissions and water use. Now, the plant-based meat sector is still tiny, less than a billion dollars a year in sales. The U.S. animal protein business is more than 200 times larger. Jessica Almy at The Good Food Institute says there's lots of room for growth.

JESSICA ALMY: I think there's an enormous opportunity for growth with plant-based food products, particularly plant-based meats. A good example is to look at how plant-based milks are doing.

MORRIS: You can see it in the dairy case in this grocery store in the middle of Kansas City. There are at least four kinds of almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, pea milk. Almy says plant-based milk has captured 13 percent of the liquid milk market in the United States. But where she sees opportunity, others see peril.

DANIELLE BECK: My name is Danielle Beck, and I'm senior director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

MORRIS: Beck argues that lax regulation has helped plant-based milk get a foothold in the dairy section.

BECK: Soy milk and almond milk, under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, are legally misbranded.

MORRIS: Milk does have a legal standard of identity in the U.S. The default is it comes from a cow. And Beck argues that the very word, milk, carries nutritional expectations that plant-based products don't.

BECK: At the end of the day, words have meaning and product labels need to provide consumers with enough information to make informed purchasing decisions.

MORRIS: The FDA is revisiting its requirements for plant-based milk labels. Meanwhile, the livestock industry is lobbying hard to stop plant-based meats from gaining the same foothold. It promoted a new law in Missouri that forbids misrepresenting a product not derived from a dead animal as meat.

ALMY: So we've sued the state of Missouri over this law because we think it's vague.

MORRIS: That's Jessica Almy again. She says the Missouri law fails to spell out just how a food expressly designed to taste like beef, chicken or sausage can be labeled. She says nobody's confused about the origin of something like almond milk. Almy says other states will probably try to replicate Missouri's label, forcing court fights across the country. But this fuss over plant-based meat substitutes is only a warm-up to a much bigger fight looming. That's coming in likely a decade or so when actual meat, produced without slaughtering animals - that is, meat grown entirely in laboratories - could reach grocery shelves. More on that tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
Frank Morris