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The Meat Industry’s Hand in Food Labeling

(Image via Plant Based News / Adobe)

When we enter a grocery store, we are immediately bombarded with all sorts of buzzwords: “cage-free,” “free range,” “sustainable,” “grass fed.” The list of labels is endless. Most of us are happy to pay a small premium for these products, safe in the assumption that we are doing better for ourselves and our world. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news, all of these labels are practically meaningless. In fact, these increasingly insidious marketing tactics have been deliberately crafted by the meat industry. With the help of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the meat industry has attempted to rebrand its factory-farmed meat, poultry, and eggs as “sustainable,” all while actively going after the labeling practices of meat-free alternatives. 

These sunny marketing tactics are disguising the blatant corruption plaguing the American meat industry. Today, the meat industry is more consolidated than when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a popular 1903 novel that exposed the appalling conditions of the meat-packing industry under monopolies during the Gilded Age and, in part, inspired the formation of the Food and Drug Administration. Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company, and JBS, commonly referred to as the “Big Four,” make up 85 percent of the meat packing industry today, compared to 25 percent in 1977. Not only has this unprecedented consolidation given the Big Four the ability to artificially increase meat prices during the pandemic, but it has also given them incredible influence over the USDA. The USDA has utterly failed to adequately regulate industry food labeling, particularly when it comes to the standards for USDA classifications such as cage-free, free range, and grass fed. For instance, the USDA only regulates the classification “free range” when it is being used for poultry, but that has not stopped the meat industry from slapping this meaningless label on other meat and dairy products. Additionally, to be classified as free range, “producers must demonstrate to the [USDA] that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” But, according to the Humane Society, this classification does not begin to cut it. The classification provides no further requirements for density of these outdoor spaces or the duration that the animals have access to them. Consumers are buying these foods, often at a premium price, because they assume these labels are reflective of more ethical treatment of the animals. The unfortunate truth is that, with so little regulation, these labels are functionally meaningless. And perhaps not coincidentally, the current US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack previously worked as a meat industry lobbyist.

The deeper problem with this “greenwashing” is that the Big Four are putting real, sustainable farmers out of business. Greg Gunthorp, a fourth-generation turkey farmer who raised his turkeys in a true free-range environment, was told by one of his longtime retailers that he could no longer sell his turkeys in their store because they were consistently outsold by Big Four turkeys. These companies made similar ethicality claims as Gunthorp without actually delivering true ethical treatment to their animals. 

But that is only the half of it. In truth, the meat industry’s fixation with labeling goes far beyond its own products. In recent years, it has also pushed for an end to what it calls “deceptive” labeling on various products, particularly plant-based meat alternatives. The meat industry is likely threatened by the increasing popularity of “meatless” meat: In the United States, the sale of plant-based foods grew by 11 percent between April 2018 and 2019, compared to the overall US food market, which grew by 2 percent over the same period. Additionally, studies show that up to 90 percent of people who purchase plant-based meats are not vegetarian or vegan, but instead are people looking to reduce their meat consumption. These individuals, who are often concerned with the environmental impact of consuming meat, could be convinced to begin buying meat again through these effective “green-washing” campaigns. With plant-based proteins rising in popularity, it is understandable that the meat industry would shift to a more offensive strategy when dealing with their new competition—and they are coming for food labels.  

A string of recently passed state laws regulate producers’ ability to relate plant-based proteins to animal-based alternatives on their packaging, including the use of phrases such as “imitation beef” and “plant-based turkey burger.” Supporters claim that these laws will reduce customer confusion, but a study from the University of Louisville finds the opposite to be the case: It is more difficult for consumers to shop for plant-based imitation meats when the animal-based original they seek to imitate is not explicitly mentioned. These laws are very transparently written to support the meat industry. Two of the three legislators who introduced Louisiana’s Truth in Labeling of Food Products Act have even explicitly stated such.

In another lawsuit, the plant-based meat company Tofurky claimed that Oklahoma’s Meat Consumer Protection Act was a “nakedly protectionist attempt to shore up animal agriculture industries.” Oklahoma’s law would impose fines of up to $10,000  and/or one year in jail per offense if the type of qualifying term (i.e “plant-based”) is not the exact same size and prominence of the name of the product (i.e. burger patty). If this law sounds vague and confusing, it’s because it is. As Tofurky stated in their complaint, the law “imposes vague standards” that make it difficult for alternative-meat producers to fall within its boundaries. It would require plant based manufacturers to spend millions to create Oklahoma-specific packaging, with little guarantee that these measures would prevent further lawsuits given the vague language of Oklahoma’s law. 

The meat industry operates in a way that is far more sinister than the average consumer knows. It is responsible for 14.5 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions and 60 percent of gas emissions related to food production. Not only that, but the meat and poultry industries are notorious for mishandling worker safety. Food labeling is just one small part of an incredibly corrupt oligopoly in the United States, but it is luckily an area that consumers might be able to impact. Learning about food labels can help you see through these hollow marketing tactics—a great first step to ensure that you’re buying products that actually align with your values, whether it be fighting climate change or supporting small farmers. Likewise, concerned consumers should ask their representatives to support “The Food Labeling Modernization Act,” a bill currently going through Congress that would regulate use of the terms “healthy” and “natural” in marketing. While this does not directly affect the green-washing in the meat industry, it would greatly increase customer awareness about labeling in general. Ultimately, the meat industry is only changing their marketing to attack plant-based foods with so much fervor because they see the writing on the wall. With increased awareness of their unethical practices regarding price gouging and their unfair treatment of workers and animals, the Big Four’s days may be numbered.