The Meat Industry v. Plant-Based Products: What’s Really Behind All These Lawsuits?

The Meat Industry v. Plant-Based Products: What’s Really Behind All These Lawsuits?

Have you eaten any “veggie discs” lately? What about getting some “plant-based tubes” for your next BBQ? 

Believe it or not, these terms were at the centre of a legal battle in Europe. If these sound unappetizing or just plain confusing, why not call them “veggie burgers” or “plant-based sausages” instead? 

In the EU, companies in the animal agriculture industry sought to ban plant-based products from using terms like “burgers” and “sausages.” They believe using these terms is misleading consumers—but is product labelling really their primary concern? 

I don’t think so and here’s why. 

The battle over terminology 

These lawsuits show me that the meat industry is feeling the pressure both from the plant-based industry and a growing consumer base that is making more conscious decisions. 

The plant-based industry has seen tremendous growth, and I’m lucky enough to have a front-row seat to all the incredible innovations—both as a consumer and business partner to many plant-based companies. 

One segment I think many should be excited about is plant-based seafood. Overfishing is a real and immediate concern that not only impacts the ecosystem but also consumers’ wallets as prices for seafood continue to increase. 

However, while the rise of plant-based seafood alternatives has been a welcome addition to our online store and our customers’ dinner plates, not everyone is as enthusiastic. Can you guess who? There is another battle of semantics as seafood companies believe calling a product “plant-based seafood” is misleading consumers. 

Words have meaning. Product packaging is the primary way for companies to deliver their messaging to consumers. So when a product has the phrase “plant-based burger,” consumers understand that A) the product is made with plants and B) they can use it as a substitute for meat patties. For meat producers, they believe this type of messaging encroaches on their territory. However, the concern has been reframed as concern for the consumer—that they’re the ones who will be confused.

I think companies who lobby for these changes aren’t giving consumers enough credit. A study by the International Food Information Council found that the majority of consumers understand that plant-based milk doesn’t actually contain cow’s milk. 

Also, it’s not like plant-based is a niche industry anymore—it’s mainstream now. It’s in the news, on your social media feed, being offered by fast-food chains on their menu—and its growth is exciting to investors. Your average consumer is highly informed, and with that comes stronger purchasing power. When more consumers are choosing meat alternatives, that’s worrying to the meat industry.

Numbers can be scary

When you have studies that show almost 80% of consumers wanting to try alternative seafood products, you start thinking about how this is going to impact your bottom line—if you’re in the meat or seafood industry, that is.

For meat producers, here are some other statistics that might be concerning: 

  • Restaurants are adopting plant-based proteins more than ever, ordering 20% more cases of plant-based products compared to the previous year. Compare this to the 2% growth for regular meat products in the same time frame.
  • 30% of Americans surveyed identified themselves as flexitarians and are eating more plant-based products as they try to cut their meat consumption. 

(As a side note, what’s interesting to me about that second stat is that in the same survey, half said they would like to be fully vegan but felt it was too inconvenient. That’s one of my primary goals with Veji—making shopping for plant-based products accessible. We already launched same-day delivery for certain regions, and we’re always working to make sustainable shopping easier for our customers.)

Consumers want sustainability

For some plant-based products, the discussion was never meant to be around being a healthier alternative to meat. Instead, these products were about providing more options to consumers with diet restrictions (and eventually from there, the topic of sustainability grew). 

Lobbyists in the meat industry have taken the narrative around health and have increasingly used that as a talking point around why meat is “better.” Consider this ad where the messaging is around how plant-based foods are unhealthy compared to real meat. I’m not a nutritionist, but if you’re eating copious amounts of bacon every day, that doesn’t sound healthy regardless of whether you’re eating real or plant-based bacon. What is a major point of difference between real and plant-based bacon are the resources and activities that go into creating the product and the resulting impact it has on the environment. Today, the more valuable discussions are around long-term environmental sustainability.

Whether it’s lower air quality due to livestock production or learning that replacing meat with plant-based products could cut emissions by over 90%, plant-based products are simply more sustainable. I’ll go more in-depth on sustainability in another article, but in short, the meat industry knows about its inherent sustainability problem. 

Moreover, it understands that consumers know and are changing their eating habits to include more environmentally-friendly products. This is why some campaigns launched by the meat industry focus on sustainability. Some of their tactics include downplaying existing research about the negative environmental impact of their industry, doubting the sustainability of plant-based products, and in some cases, even claiming that red meat consumption has little to no effect on health conditions such as heart disease.

What’s behind the lawsuit? 

Just recently in Australia, the Australian Red Meat Advisory Council launched a study that claimed consumers were confused over plant-based labelling. It doesn’t look like the battle over language and labelling will be ending anytime soon—at least in some parts of the world. 

When it comes to lawsuits the meat industry launches against plant-based products, consider this: if a verdict goes either way, who exactly is “winning”? While many lawsuits claim to be on the side of the consumer, is that truly the case? This is definitely an interesting area to keep an eye on because it can have a significant impact not just on plant-based foods but also on consumers.

At the beginning of the article, I opened with a lawsuit animal farmers launched against plant-based companies in the EU. I’m happy to let you know that when travel fully reopens, you don’t have to worry about looking silly when you order a “veggie disc.” The European Parliament eventually sided with plant-based companies, meaning they can continue using terms like “veggie burgers.”

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