Meat? Yes, we know what that is.

Meat? Yes, we know what that is.

As a former legislator, I understand (although never enjoyed) political pandering. I’ll admit that sometimes I would say nothing or be very non-committal when a group (especially a group of constituents) wanted me to take a particular position, and I’ll also admit that I likely pandered on occasion to groups that I could do it to in good conscience because their views were consistent with my general philosophy.

So, when I saw this op-ed from Nebraska’s senior U.S. Senator, Deb Fischer, I’ll admit to rolling my eyes a little bit. I mean, really, how can you go wrong writing a pro-beef op-ed that gets placed in a national newspaper?

An ad, shown at the link to Senator Fischer’s op-ed, suggests that vegetarian/vegan burger manufacturers are making claims of being “better for the environment”–which of course is a loaded political statement in this day and age. Frankly, I don’t care what motivations people have for eating what they eat (since we all have to eat something). Rather, I think we ought to focus on folks being able to make a well-informed choice for themselves.

Now, I’m an unrepentant 57-year-old omnivore, who (were it not for fears of having my cholesterol go through the roof) could happily live on a diet of roast beef, steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, loaded baked potatoes, and the occasional hamburger.  My maternal grandfather was the owner of a small town meat processing plant; my paternal grandfather was a veterinarian who had a significant large animal practice. Those of us who grew up in rural Nebraska in the 60s and 70s (and certainly before), understood that livestock was raised to eat–and that it could be very tasty.

But I’ve learned to adapt because my oldest daughter and one of my nieces have decided to adopt vegan diets. We haven’t given up animal-based food when they’re around, but my sister and I have learned to look at labels and offer some plant-based alternatives for those times when our grown children come to visit. The “no eggs, butter, milk, cheese” part of the vegan diet is more difficult to work around than the “no-meat”/vegetarian portion, I’ve found, but there are ways around those difficulties.

People should be able to nourish their bodies as they choose–that’s one of the great things about being human: we get to choose what we put on our plates, whereas our domesticated animals of all types usually depend on humans to decide what they get to eat (except for a few dogs that I’ve known, who have figured out how to get the bread off of the counter, or open the refrigerator door, or–as in the case of the Bumpus Hounds in “A Christmas Story”–snag some meat off the table.

So the question before us–as in with Senator Fischer’s “Real MEAT Act”– is how much the government needs to be doing to ensure that we humans know what we’re eating:

Misleading labels are to blame for the confusion. Plant-based protein packaging often contains the words “beef,” “meat” and “burger” in large letters. The Real MEAT Act would work to end deceptive labeling practices for imitation meat products, clear up confusion by codifying a definition of “beef” for product labeling, and provide a mechanism for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to seek enforcement actions if a product is found to be mislabeled. The bill would also ensure that the packaging for these products clearly states they contain no actual meat.

One of my late grandmother’s recipes called for walnut “meat.” My lactose-sensitive husband prefers soy or coconut “milk” on his cereal. I think most of us know that both the “meat” and the “milk” here is not animal-derived, but rather plant-derived. And if we don’t, maybe we should.

My vegan daughter has taught me something about reading labels. Things that you’d never think of as having milk or eggs or anything animal-derived sometimes do; and sometimes, things that my grandma’s recipe would have called for having milk and eggs in (like some bread), has none in some commercially made products.

We have labeling laws and deceptive marketing laws galore–both at the federal and the state level. Do we really need to prohibit the use of words (like “burger”) if the actual ingredient label is accurate?  When my daughter’s family is coming to visit, I’ll pick up vegan “sausage” and vegan “burgers” and assorted types of plant-based “milk”. Attaching those familiar labels to them makes it easier for me to find them at the grocery store.

Is the average person really that confused, as Senator Fischer’s op-ed suggests? Or is this a case of the meat ag industry wanting to lay claim to specific words? Actually, I hope it’s the latter because I don’t want to think that most of us are that easily duped and need big government to tell us that coconuts don’t lactate, or veggie burgers aren’t made from meat.

There are some, of course, who are especially concerned about “truth in ‘manufactured meat’.”  I get that. We like meat, but the idea of a manufactured steak just doesn’t seem like it would be the same as one that’s been cut “off the hoof”. And, given the concern that some have with respect to GMO’s and cynicism about laboratory testing and preservatives, it’s not unreasonable to expect that our “meat”–no matter where it’s come from–be identified. Personally, I always go for the Angus steaks and roasts, and when I can get meat that is grass-fed (some folks, including my friends down the road, offer “specialty meats”–like “flaxseed finished”–which is quite good….I need to get down there and pick some more up).  I’m not convinced that in most places, the move from “on the hoof” to “manufactured” is going to be that rapid unless the prices are comparable. And even then, I’m not sure.  But I absolutely think that the derivation of the meat ought to be noted (as with the “Angus” labels I often see).

In the end, it’s about choice. Accurate labeling is important so that we can all make the right choice for ourselves. And we should all be responsible enough for our own preferences in eating to read the labels for ourselves if we are concerned. But none of us–carnivores, omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans–should try and lay claim to a particular word, because definitions can vary over time and context. Spaghetti squash, anyone?

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