Would a plant-based "burger" by any other name taste as good?
Cattlemen have been pushing, often successfully, for state laws forbidding the use of the word "meat" to describe plant-based and lab-grown products. Whatever you think of these laws -- and some people think they violate the First Amendment while others wonder what good they'll do -- you have to sympathize with where the cattlemen are coming from.
It's hard enough to make a living in the cattle business as it is. The last thing people who raise animals need is competition from people who don't. You can almost hear them: "How dare these burger-making wannabees call their products meat?"
The cattle guys didn't react this way back when veggie burgers and Tofurky hit the market. Those products were for vegetarians, a tiny fraction of the market. Not so the plant-based offerings from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They're aimed squarely at carnivores, the heart of the cattle guys' market.
Unlike those earlier faux-meat products, the new ones come close to tasting like real meat. These companies' plant-based "burgers" sizzle and bleed on the grill, just like meat. Some people say they can't tell the difference.
What's even more worrying, from a cattle raiser's perspective, are how some consumers have bought into the claims that by choosing the substitute over the real thing, they're saving the planet. Impossible Foods says its products use 96% less land and 87% less water while producing 89% fewer emissions than the cow-based originals. (https://impossiblefoods.com/…) Most cattle raisers, on the other hand, think what they do is good for the environment.
If there's any welcome news in all this for the cattlemen, it's that environmental claims are basically all these two companies have to sell. Healthiness? As Washington Post columnist David von Drehle put it, plant patties aren't health food. They "are high in sodium and saturated fat -- I told you they were yummy! -- and roughly equivalent to beef in calories, though lower in cholesterol." (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…)
Taste? These patties may approach the taste of real burgers but to some palates they're still not quite as good. One reviewer said the plant burger was "tasty and juicy" with a texture "shockingly close" to beef but added she would use steak seasoning next time to make it taste more like a normal burger. (https://www.businessinsider.com/…)
Cost? The plant patties are much more expensive. The Impossible sliders at White Castle restaurants are more than double the price of the beef sliders. (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) Burger King's Impossible Whopper will cost about a dollar more. (https://www.cnbc.com/…)
More money for less taste is normally not a winning sales pitch. If carnivores bite, it will mainly be because of the perceived environmental benefits. That doesn't mean cattlemen should write off these competitors as a fad that will fade, however. Someday, judging from technological history, the taste of these lab-created burgers is likely to improve and the price come down. The clock is ticking.
How should cattlemen best use the time they have? A brief story will illustrate the problem with spending this time passing laws about product names.
One day during my years as Tokyo bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, I was left a message to call "Anthony Willoughby, I will not complain." I didn't know an Anthony Willoughby and I couldn't think of what I might have done to cause him to even contemplate complaining. Intrigued, I returned his call.
It turned out that "I Will Not Complain" was the name of his company. Tony was a born salesman, and once he had me on the line I of course ended up writing a story about him, which was exactly what he wanted. The somewhat mysterious company name was his bait.
In the same way, I think Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat might actually benefit from being forced to avoid the word "meat." Instead of offering an "Impossible Whopper," Burger King could offer "The Impossible" -- and many people would be intrigued and try it. The fast-food burger chain Carl's Jr., which offers a Beyond Meat burger, has already figured out the value of a little mystery. It dubs its offering the "Beyond Famous Star."
I hope my point is clear. While legally restricting "meat" to real animal-based products may feel good, it may not do much to deter the plant-based competition. A more productive strategy would be to campaign against the widespread assumption that cows are killing the planet.
Specifically, rebut any inaccuracies in the assumption. Point out the good things livestock do for the environment. Find some sympathetic young cattle raisers who are conservation champions and build an advertising campaign around them.
Most consumers will base their choice on two things -- taste and price. Today, on those points, real meat wins. The battleground on which to fight the competition isn't what the product is called, it's the competition's perceived environmental advantage. If that perception is wrong, cattlemen need to start telling the general public why.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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