Grocery wars: Beef, dairy fight for shelf space

A food war is raging among cattle ranchers and dairy farmers who are demanding plant-based producers stop labeling their products as meat and milk as they compete with companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and milk alternatives at supermarkets.

Sales of plant-based alternatives to meat have increased 8 percent since August of this year, while chicken, pork and beef sales stayed stagnant, according to Nielsen data as reported by The Wall Street Journal.  And lobbying groups for beef producers are calling out some plant-based producers’ marketing tactics.

Impossible Foods Inc. signage is displayed during the company's grocery store product launch in Los Angeles, California, U.S.. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images). 

“We don’t believe they should be able to use the term beef, and they should be marketing their products on the positive attributes of their products, and not by disparaging our products – specifically Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat,” Colin Woodall, CEO of the Colorado-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group, told FOX Business Tuesday, adding, “Don’t use the term beef, because you’re not beef.”

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, the makers of plant-based burgers on sale at grocery stores and at fast-food chains like Burger King, White Castle, Dunkin and KFC, target meat-eating consumers looking to eat less meat and diversify their protein intake. Their products are marketed as being environmentally friendly alternatives.

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat did not immediately return a request for comment.

Beyond Meat. (Beyond Meat)

There have been 45 bills introduced in 27 states aimed at challenging food labeling of plant-based products to not allow them to call their foods meat or milk, the Journal reported. 

Sales of plant-based milk including varieties like soy, almond, oat and others have grown 6 percent over the past year, now making up 13 percent of the entire milk category, according to data from The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association. Sales of cow’s milk, meanwhile, have declined 3 percent, according to the same report.

“Labeling integrity is important for consumers to understand what something is, and what something isn’t. Milk is a much more nutritious beverage than its plant-based imitators, and their misuse of dairy terms misleads consumers into thinking those beverages benefit them in ways they do not,” Alan Bjerga, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation said in an email.

Some states have recently imposed stricter food labeling laws that side with the animal agriculture industry. Arkansas lawmakers created a food labeling law earlier this year that forbids companies from using meat names like burgers and sausages if the product isn’t actually made from animal products.

Sales of plant-based milk including varieties like soy, almond, oat milks and others have grown 6% over the past year, now making up 13% of the entire milk category, according to data from The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association.

As a result, Tofurky, the faux-meat substitute made from imitation turkey and tofu, sued the state of Arkansas on Monday over its labeling law, asking a federal judge to temporarily put it on hold, arguing that consumers understand that veggie burgers aren’t real beef and that alternative dairy products, like almond milk, don’t come from cows. Tofurkey has not changed its labels. 

The law would impose a $1,000 fine on plant-based or alternative meat products that are packaged and marketed as meat, like “tofu dogs” or “veggie burgers,” despite also being labeled as vegetarian or vegan.

Advocates for plant-based foods have said the proposed state laws are a violation of the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech.

“These laws are unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects labels as long as they’re truthful and not misleading. All of these labels are using proper qualifiers like veggie and plant-based. This idea that consumers are confused is ridiculous,” Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, said. “There’s no consumer complaint; the complaining is only being done by the industry that’s threated by the competition.”

Woodall says the rise of plant-based foods has posed increased competition for the meat industry.

“We do see them as being as a force. You can’t watch TV without seeing an Impossible Whopper ad. We know there is demand for their product, we do see them as a competitor. We welcome them as competitors as long as they’re going to be upfront with the consumer. If we level the playing field we welcome the competition,” Woodall said.