Are policy makers trying to stop the future of food? Or are they simply asking the new ultra-hyped, venture-backed food companies to earn their seat at the table?
Government policy has always played a role in innovation, sometimes impeding it (see At the table or on the menu: The Politics of Innovation) and sometimes helping it (see Disruptive Policy and Innovation).
Recently, policymakers are getting in the way of new plant-based protein companies like Just (formerly Hampton Creek) and Impossible Foods (maker of the Impossible Burger) by blocking them from marketing their plant-based meat substitute as, well, meat. Maddie Oatman, writing in Mother Jones, notes the emergence of new policies defining old foods,
“Missouri [just] became the first state to make sure plant and lab-based meat makers can’t use the term “meat” to describe their products.”
Their omnibus agricultural bill banned use of the word “meat” to describe anything “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” They’re not alone. France also banned use of the words ‘steak’ and ‘cheese’ from describing plant-based alternatives.
The battle echoes the great mayonnaise wars of 2014-2015: In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that eggless mayo company Hampton Creek couldn’t use the term “mayo” on its label.
What’s really at stake here? Will this shut down the coming food revolution or simply require these companies to make stuff people like enough to order by name rather than by accident? Given the majority of the world’s protein intake comes from plants, it’s not like vast societies need to be taught how to consume plant protein.
Frankly, any business model that relies on consumer ignorance will be short-lived (unless it’s addictive, but that’s another policy issue entirely)1 Worse, sanctioning widespread ignorance creates what economist George Ackerlof calls a “Market for Lemons”: when sellers have more knowledge of their offerings than buyers, bad quality products or services eventually drive out the good ones. In other words, if anyone can call anything meat, then I have some swamp meat in Florida to sell you.
This may be a non-issue but, for the record, I’d rather see these companies succeed on taste, health, or other clear distinctions that consumers value. That will, in turn, drive the market towards better quality products and services. And that’s what we want, right?