The English language—being an inchoate amalgamation of geographically and culturally distinct languages—is replete with quirks and oddities. There are words that are pronounced the same but are spelled differently (tare, tear), words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently (tear, wind), and words that share pronunciation and spelling, but have widely divergent meanings (pen, bat).
For food companies doing business the United States, the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the English language are nothing to sneeze at. So is the legal case regarding the word “meat”—in fact, often the different courts will interpret the same things differently. This article explores recent legislative attempts to constrain the use of the term “meat,” and the legal battles being waged in response to that legislation.
The online Merriam Webster dictionary offers five different definitions of “meat.” The most expansive definition is, simply, “food.” A somewhat narrower definition describes meat as the edible portion of food “as distinguished from its covering (such as a husk or shell).” Nevertheless, this definition still encompasses an enormous array of foods, from coconuts, to bananas, to pistachios, to turtles, to shrimp. Narrower still, the term can pertain specifically to the tissue of a mammal, as opposed to fowl or fish. This definition would of course exclude coconuts, but also many items commonly understood to be meat, such as chicken, turkey, or rattlesnake. Strangely, meat may also refer to the spongy tissue in the stems of most vascular plants. The archaic definition is “a meal, especially dinner.” Finally, unrelated to food, meat can mean a “favorite pursuit or interest,” as well as the core or heart of a matter. Meat, then, can mean many different things. As a result, the enactment of laws that significantly constrain the use of frequently applied and accurate terms is apt to result in lawsuits.
In recent years, numerous states, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming, have enacted so-called “truth in labeling” laws that prohibit the use of certain terms to describe products. For instance, Missouri’s truth in labeling law prohibits companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Does this mean that wild game isn’t meat? Similarly, the Mississippi law prohibits the use of “meat terms” to describe plant-based foods. And in Arkansas, the word “meat” may only be used to describe “a portion of a livestock, poultry, or cervid [deer, elk] carcass that is edible by humans.” Thus, even though poultry is included, bear, ostrich, alligator, rattlesnake, and squirrel are generally excluded. In addition, it’s no longer permissible to sell “veggie burgers” in Arkansas because the law prohibits using a term that is the same as or similar to a term that has been used or defined historically in reference to a specific agricultural product.
By most indications, these “truth in labeling” laws are being enacted in response to the explosive growth in of products marketed as meat substitutes (i.e., plant-based and cell-cultured protein alternatives). The increasing popularity of these products is attributable to a confluence of cultural and technological factors: culturally, concerns about animal welfare, the environmental impact of animal agriculture, and perceptions about the nutritional value of plant-based products; technologically, companies are only now overcoming the challenges that have long made producing these foods cost prohibitive.
For years, cell-cultured products—derisively termed “lab meat”—have languished nearer to the realm of science fiction than reality. The products bore only a passing resemblance to their animal-derived counterparts, despite the extraordinary cost. For example, a 2013 taste test involving a $325,000 “hamburger” grown in a laboratory petri dish received poor reviews and was described as dry, flavorless, and akin to “an animal-protein cake.”