Across the nation, government food police are launching a crusade against what names we call our food. Whether the food in question is veggie “sausage,” cauliflower “rice,” or almond “milk,” government officials appear eager to restrict the free speech rights of food companies.
In 1980, Seth Tibbott, armed with what he described as “a passionate love for soybeans” and $2,500 of life savings founded Turtle Island Foods in a small space he rented at the back of an Oregon food co-op. The company focused on producing vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat, including its most recognizable product, the now-ubiquitous Tofurky, which debuted in 1995. As Tofurky sales took off, the family-owned company eventually grew into a multimillion-dollar business. While the plant-based food market has only continued to expand (sales have risen 20 percent in just the last year) Turtle Island now faces a new threat: food regulators.
This past summer, Missouri passed a law that makes it illegal to “misrepresent” a product as meat if it is not “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Any person or company that violates the law can face hefty fines and up to a year in jail. The law, passed at the behest of the livestock industry, means that popular plant-based items like Tofurky and veggie burgers could find themselves in the government’s crosshairs if their labels use words like “meat.” For now, the Missouri Department of Agriculture has released guidance suggesting it will not target products with disclaimers such as “plant-based” or “veggie,” but this guidance is not binding on the local prosecuting attorneys who are charged with enforcing the law.
Turtle Island Foods and The Good Food Institute recently challenged the law in court, arguing that it unconstitutionally infringes on the company’s free speech rights. By restricting the words Turtle Island can use on its own product labels, Missouri is hindering the company’s ability to communicate to customers and effectively market its products.
Unfortunately, artificial meat is just one battle amid a nationwide campaign against the speech rights of food companies. The Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it intends to look into whether consumers are “erroneously assum[ing] that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk,” despite the fact that consumers always have access to nutrition labels that would clarify the contents of the milk. The biggest proponent of FDA involvement on this issue is, unsurprisingly, the dairy industry, which views milk alternatives as a competitive threat. Likewise, the rice industry has issued similar calls for the government to crack down on cauliflower “rice,” another product that has recently grown in popularity.
So far, neither these industry groups nor the FDA have presented any data to prove that consumers are confused by these products. If anything, relabeling almond milk as “almond beverage” or cauliflower rice as “cauliflower crumbles” will likely be even more confusing to consumers than using the products’ now-commonly accepted names. The result could be more shoppers having trouble following diets or adhering to healthy eating habits. Furthermore, all these products include a list of ingredients on their packaging that customers can readily consult if they are unsure about what a product contains.
The war on food labeling also lacks linguistic sense. While FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was quick to snark that “an almond doesn’t lactate,” he may want to consult the dictionary. As linguist Ben Zimmer has noted, the phrase “almande mylke” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as the 14th century, and magazines from the early 1900s discussed “soy-milk.”
Similarly, “meat” has not been historically confined to products derived from animals. The concept of “nut meat” has been familiar to chefs for years, and dictionaries continue to define meat, in part, as simply “the edible part” of any product. Even more egregiously, the word “rice” has long been used as a verb (as in “riced boiled potatoes”) and the rice industry itself promotes rice “milk.”
When governments start trying to play etymologist by redefining words that describe food, it’s not hard to anticipate the slippery slope that lies ahead. Other famous staples like peanut butter (which is not technically “butter,” nor is a pea a “nut”) and the “ham”-burger itself could be next. Worse yet, we might be forced to rebrand the iconic hot “dog” to something more descriptive — anyone hungry for a “pork tube”?
To date, there is not an epidemic of grocery shoppers mistaking soy milk for cow’s milk or veggie meat for the real thing. Instead, incumbent industries are playing word games in an effort to protect themselves from competition.