Keith Nunes 2019WASHINGTON — The number of food companies planning to enter or grow their presence in the market for meat alternatives is rapidly growing. Consumer interest in the category combined with advancements in ingredient solutions are leading to the development of products increasingly difficult to distinguish from conventional meat. These innovations are prompting competitors to seek laws and regulations intended to slow development of the market.

While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have received the lion’s share of attention around this space, companies such as Nestle S.A.; Tyson Foods, Inc.; Conagra Brands, Inc. and others have announced plans to become competitive in the category. Nestle initially tested its plant-based Incredible Burger in Israel and introduced it in Europe in April. The burger currently is being tested in McDonald’s restaurants in Germany.

Tyson Foods and Conagra Brands also have announced plans to grow their presence in the meat alternative category (see this issue, pages 18 and 12, respectively.) Conagra’s plans include leveraging the Gardein brand while Tyson Foods will offer 100% plant-based meat alternative products and items that contain a blend of meat protein and plant-based ingredients as well as the company’s full roster of meat-based products.

As more attention is paid to the potential of the meat alternative market, with some forecasting the segment to reach $30 billion in sales in the next few years, special interests representing meat producers and processors are lobbying both state and federal authorities to develop legislation to prevent plant-based products from being labeled or marketed as meat.

These tactics have proven most successful at the state level. In Missouri, for example, a law went into effect at the beginning of this year to prevent plant-based products from being labeled with certain animal meat descriptors, such as burger or sausage. The law further forbids plant-based products from being labeled “vegetarian burger.”

The Missouri law is being challenged in court, but Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota now have similar laws with legislative initiatives under consideration in at least 11 other states.

The purported justification for these efforts is meat alternatives are causing confusion among consumers; that people cannot differentiate between an animal and analog product. The makers of meat alternatives argue there is no confusion, the products are clearly labeled and such terms as burger or sausage are simply descriptors.

Meat industry concern about the market impact plant-based alternatives may have is warranted. The growth of the dairy alternative category and the impact it has had on the dairy industry is a teachable moment. The market research company Grand View Research estimates global dairy alternative sales were $11.9 billion in 2017 and is forecasting global sales may reach $41.1 billion by 2025.

Such growth will not be fueled by the consumer’s inability to differentiate between a conventional and alternative product. It will be fueled by a concern about allergens and animal welfare as well as consumer interest in the sustainability halo that hovers over the dairy alternative category.

Innovation has brought the food industry to the point where certain alternative plant-based products are remarkably similar in taste, texture and appearance to their animal counterparts. This is an accomplishment to be celebrated. Using legislative tactics to undercut such innovation sets a bad precedent for the future.