Murphy: A Bad Reaction

Maybe alternative meat offers an opportunity. ( iStock )

I hate to fall back on an overused journalistic cliché by beginning a commentary with a dictionary definition, but in this case, it applies.

The word of the day is “reactionary,” which Merriam-Webster defines as, “Favoring reaction, meaning resistance or opposition to a force, influence, or movement; especially a tendency toward an outmoded political or social order or policy.”

Unfortunately, reactionary is an accurate description of the position of many people in the meat industry regarding the emergence of the alt-meat sector and the marketing of a number of plant-based “meat” products aimed at a segment of affluent consumers concerned (mainly) about the eco-impact of animal agriculture.

There is coordinated, often strident opposition to the media’s coverage of this new sector, condemnation of the companies responsible for launching these new products and even demonization of the technology itself.

None of that is any good for the industry, from either a business standpoint or a public relations perspective.

Reacting to developments involving new product categories tend to negate the opportunities that might be available to create additional revenue and profits. Look how long the beef industry dug in its heels and fought back against the low-fat movement, before finally adopting ¼-inch trim on carcasses and eventually leveraging genetics and management to deliver the leaner, more tender products consumers were demanding.

Now, it’s nearly impossible to find any beef marketing that doesn’t emphasize the value of lean, nutritious protein. The industry’s messaging is positive and proactive, and it’s a lot more productive than the enmity that was once directed at critics of beef’s nutritional profile.

A Ban on Terminology
With the so-called “alt-meat” category, the new wave of products developed by either high-tech formulations of plant proteins and/or through what’s been dubbed cellular agriculture, industry’s early reaction has been to demand that USDA restrict the marketers of those products from using terms such as beef, pork or chicken.

It’s a reactionary response that will neither deter the monied interests funding this new category, nor sway consumers conditioned to view conventional animal agriculture with concern, if not outright derision.

Here’s an example of what I mean: USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue recently visited Fargo, N.D., and met with two cattle industry groups. According to reporting by the Jamestown (North Dakota) Sun newspaper, the issue of “fake meat” was raised during a roundtable discussion.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, and Larry Kinev of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, asked Perdue to take action to ensure that alt-meat products cannot be labeled with “real” meat terms, and to prevent the marketers of those products from disparaging conventional meat in their advertising.

They can forget about the second part of that request; for decades, the organic industry has been slamming dairy and meat producers with impunity as purveyors of hormone- and antibiotic-tainted products that, if they don’t kill you on the spot, will certainly shorten the lifespan of anyone foolish enough to eat non-organic foods.

As for a standard of identity promulgated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service that would clarify the permissible labeling of alt-meat products, while that’s a feel-good issue for producers, even if a ban is enacted, it might not help the industry.

That’s because these products are marketed to affluent, well-educated consumers, the kind of people who read labels, who digest the backstories and backgrounds of the companies they patronize and who choose to pay premium prices precisely because these products aren’t beef, pork or poultry.

By forcing these entrepreneurial start-ups to develop innovative new labeling, an argument could be made that a ban on use of conventional terms might make alt-meat products appear even more attractive to the very market segment to which they’re aimed.

According to the newspaper, Perdue noted that it’s “odd” that the “same people who are scared of GMOs seem to be endorsing lab-created products that mimic meat.”

That’s not odd at all, Mr. Secretary. Just as animal activists who loathe Big Ag will embrace any development out of Silicon Valley that might minimize the use of lab rats in medical research, so too the folks who believe that buying beef is hastening the demise of planet Earth will absolutely overlook the application of whatever sophisticated technology is deployed if (in their minds) it addresses the existential threat of climate change.

In the end, there’s plenty of room for both real meat and alt-meat in a world soon to be populated by nine billion very hungry humans.

Rather than reacting to the popularity and publicity accorded these non-meat analogs, it’s far better to start figuring out better messaging for the 80-plus percent of the population that still does — and will continue to — consume real meat.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.