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Can Meatballs be Vegetarian? Kansas Livestock Industry Wants Stricter Labeling for Meat Alternatives

Vegetarian meat alternatives in a Lawrence grocery store. (Photo by Stephen Koranda, Kansa Public Radio)
Vegetarian meat alternatives in a Lawrence grocery store. (Photo by Stephen Koranda, Kansa Public Radio)

Vegetarian meat alternatives are growing in popularity, with “Chick’n Strips” and “Porkless Bites” filling freezer cases in some Kansas grocery stores.

But following a handful of states, a bill in the Kansas Statehouse would clamp down on how meatless-meat products are labeled. Backed by the Kansas Livestock Association, the bill would require more specific labeling for meat substitutes, with words such as “imitation” included in front of phrases like “meatballs.”

At least six states have taken action requiring extra labeling for the plant-based foods, including neighboring Missouri, which was the first in the nation to do so.

The fight comes as plant-based meat substitute sales jumped 17% between 2018 and 2019, according to the advocacy group the Good Food Institute

The livestock association believes labels using meat terms on vegetarian products could confuse consumers.

“We just want to make sure everyone is clear as to what we’re buying and selling,” said Aaron Popelka, who is the vice president of legal and government affairs for the Kansas Livestock Association.

He also said shoppers who accidentally buy vegetarian alternatives means lost sales to the $8.3 billionKansas cattle industry. If someone unknowingly buys an imitation beef product and doesn’t like it, that ultimately could hurt their opinion of beef.

Some lawmakers also said they were concerned by the labels on some plant-based products.

“We see ‘Beyond Meat,’ ‘Beyond Beef,’ ‘crumbles,’ ‘beefy,’” Republican Rep. Trevor Jacobs said at a hearing Thursday. “That makes me think it’s going to be hamburger beef from a cow, not from a head of lettuce.”

The labels on meat alternatives typically include phrases like “plant-based” or “meat-free.”

To Democratic Rep. Rui Xu, those terms are clear. Xu said everyone he knows is familiar with terms like “Impossible Burger,” and know that meat substitutes are typically in a separate section of a grocery store.

“Nobody is buying those thinking they’re getting real meat,” Xu said.

He added that it makes more sense to leave the labeling rules to the federal government, as it’s done now, and not subject companies to a patchwork of state laws.

The Good Food Institute, which is against the bill, told lawmakers that sales of the items are growing specifically because people are seeking out meat alternatives. It also argued there could be free speech concerns if lawmakers were to limit how plant-based foods are labeled.

“Consumer choice — not censorship — should determine winners and losers in the marketplace,” GFI’s Scott Weathers said.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.