As of January 1, 2019, Missouri law has threatened to impose criminal sanctions on those who market plant-based food with the word “meat.” Turning the clock back further, to 1996, Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal recognition (and corresponding benefits) to the marriages of same-sex couples wedded in a state permitting them. In the case of both moves, we have or had a government entity attempting to prevent change by entrenching the traditional definition of a label, whether it be “meat” or “marriage.” In this column, I will examine the significance of fighting change by policing the use of words.
Under the text of the Missouri law, people and companies may use the word “meat” in advertising and labeling only when referring to something “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” In other words, if a food product did not come from a mammal or a bird, then it is not “meat” in Missouri. The law apparently targets companies that sell plant-based/vegan meats (like Beyond Meat) and, eventually, companies that sell meat that comes from cultured animal cells (like Memphis Meats) rather than whole animals. Both sorts of products pose a competitive threat to the slaughterhouse-food industry, a threat that almost certainly motivated the law regulating use of the word “meat.” Subsequent interpretations of the law allow vendors to use the word “meat” if they include specified qualifiers.
What might be a legitimate reason for insisting that people use the (unqualified) word “meat” to refer only to the tissue of slaughtered mammals and birds? One answer is to prevent the consumer from mistakenly purchasing something that he or she never meant to buy. As long as it is legal to slaughter animals and sell their remains at market, people interested in consuming the resulting flesh have an interest in knowing that package A contains what they want while package B does not. In the same way, if I am looking to purchase a drink that contains fruit juice, I might complain of deception if I were to buy a carton of “fruit punch” only to learn that it contained nothing from an actual fruit. If I can legitimately seek to consume a particular ingredient, and a product’s label conveys the false impression that the product contains the desired ingredient, then I have cause to complain.
Is that what plant-based meats are doing? Are companies attempting to deceive customers into believing that their products contain slaughtered animals? And are the attempts in question successful? The answer is a resounding no. The entire point of the companies in question is to meet the demand for products that do not come from the slaughterhouse. If using the word “meat” in the products’ labeling misled consumers, then the target audience for the products, consumers who want plant-based meat, would avoid the very products that they had hoped to purchase and that vegan companies had wished to sell to them.
Consider a sugar-free candy aimed at people with diabetes. Imagine that the candy carried labeling that said “sugary sweet” and “Sugarific!” People with diabetes might avoid the candy, and the labeling would accordingly defeat the purpose of selling a sugar-free confection in the first place.
Vegan/plant-based products thus compete with slaughter-based products by meeting customer demands for an alternative and by appealing to people open to trying the alternative. Misleading customers would frustrate the companies’ own goals.
To the extent, then, that slaughter-based companies (and their legislative helpers) wish to deny the word “meat” to the alternative products, it would appear to have little to do with concern that someone is tricking people into thinking that Beyond Burgers died in a slaughterhouse. Vegan companies aim to appeal to people’s desire for the flavors and textures of meat. Plant-based meat can satisfy people’s taste as well as their wish to avoid subsidizing violence against living and breathing animals. Words like “meat” and “burger” and “frankfurter” let consumers know what the non-slaughter foods will taste like, even as words like “vegan” and “plant-based” or deliberate spelling errors (like “chik’n”) inform people that no knives, no captive bolt guns, and no kill-lines played any part in creating their food. Holding the word “meat” hostage to the slaughterhouse is a way of unilaterally declaring that the only route to enjoying the experience of meat is through the slaughterhouse doors, a message that is—perhaps ironically—false and misleading to consumers.
Also a definitional project, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) became law in 1996, providing, among other things, that same-sex couples who married in a state allowing such weddings would receive no federal recognition of their wedded status. It meant that these couples would be entitled to no federal benefits that otherwise accrue to married people. Federal law was declaring that the definition of marriage requires two people of the opposite sex.
It is telling that DOMA’s proponents named the law the “Defense of Marriage Act.” The title suggests a refusal to allow inferior couples to call themselves married lest they spell the end of real marriage. Meanwhile, no one was campaigning for pro-same-sex marriage laws that would inflict harm on traditional marriage. The alleged harm would flow from people perceiving committed relationships between same-sex partners as essentially the same as—just as valuable as—male/female marriages.
It brings to mind the dilemma of whether to extend an honorific title to a broader class of people who lack some of the qualifications that belong to the original title holders, thereby diluting the honorific. If same-sex couples can marry, the thinking might have gone, then marriage would cease to mean as much. In terms of a market, we might say that if the availability of marriage—its supply—grew, then its price, its value, would drop.
Seen in this way, the fight over whether to allow same-sex couples to become “married” may have been like ophthalmologists and optometrists limiting the work of opticians rather than stemming from people taking offense at sexual relations between gay men or lesbians. People sometimes want a monopoly over the things that they have, the possessions that they value, that by which they define themselves. This tendency may help explain why, for a time, people apparently supported the allowance of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, arrangements that would have provided many of the privileges associated with conventional marriage, but not the title “marriage.”
In the case of both meat and marriage, then, arguments over a word conceal strong feelings about status. Defenders of narrow definitions of meat and marriage claim that they simply want everyone to speak accurately. If a food contains no slaughtered animals, then it simply isn’t meat; meat is a word with meaning, and the meaning is “contains flesh of a harvested (i.e., slaughtered) animal.” Likewise, opponents of same-sex marriage have long maintained that the word “marriage” necessarily implies a male/female couple; we should not use the wrong word to refer to two men or two women in a relationship. In both cases, the wrong word allegedly misleads people and dilutes the meaning of the treasured item or status.
Yet in reality, no one becomes confused when they see Beyond Burgers at the supermarket or at a restaurant. They understand that the meat in front of them is plant-based, and if they have tasted it, they know that it is incredibly delicious. The company that makes the product has no interest in leading consumers to believe that the product contains animal flesh. If such food “harms” the conventional (and organic) “meat” products, it is by helping consumers who have become increasingly uncomfortable with what it takes to create animal meat; having a delectable alternative makes it easier to leave the slaughterhouse behind.
Same-sex marriage never really threatened opposite-sex marriage. Some people in the past surely married against their sexual orientation, but the stigma attaching to same-sex couples had substantially faded long before same-sex marriage became the law of the land. But maybe mixed-gender couples felt special because only people like them could call themselves “married.” A definitional approach to the dilemma allowed people to hold onto their status without sounding like bigots.
Fortunately, the law now reflects the view that being with an opposite-sex partner is no longer an essential part of the definition of marriage. With any luck, the word “meat” will evolve to the point where no one wants food from a slaughterhouse. I predict that all will eventually reject an enterprise that hangs gentle and defenseless beings upside down, blood pulsing rhythmically from their torn throats.