Some Wisconsin lawmakers say consumers are confused by vegetarian and vegan options at stores and restaurants. Now, they’re hoping to make the distinction between plant alternatives and animal products clearer through labeling laws.
State Senator Howard Marklein, along with Representative Travis Tranel and Representative Loren Oldenburg, recently introduced three bills to that would change what meat and dairy alternatives can be called.
Marklein cites a report by three Wisconsin dairy groups that claims nearly half of consumers either think cow’s milk is in dairy-free yogurt and cheeses, or don’t know what is in the products at all.
“A lot of consumers don’t know what’s in them. They think some dairy products that have been marketed do contain dairy when in fact they do not,” Marklein says.
“So, we want to limit the confusion, and it also gives me the incredible opportunity to tout the wonderful dairy products, the wonderful milk that our farmers are producing in Wisconsin.”
The three laws would make sure that anything labeled “milk” would come from a “hooved mammal,” that products labeled yogurt, ice cream, or cheese would have to be a dairy product, and that any plant-based or cell-cultured meat alternative could not use wording that is also used for meat products.
That would mean such alternatives couldn’t use ‘burger’ or ‘sausage’ or ‘wing’.
If the meat labeling law is adopted, Wisconsin would join at least eleven other states that have passed similar laws.
“If you’re gonna sell, you know, burgers or bacon or wings, it better come from muscle tissue [and] not a plant based product,” Marklein adds.
Steph Tai is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. They just published a paper on labeling laws and meat alternatives.
Tai argues that consumers aren’t actually that confused by labels right now.
“It’s an interesting argument,” Tai says. “But it’s belied by the fact that there are ingredient labels on all these products, right? And people can look. If you get cheese — I mean for instance, I like cheese. I don’t like goat cheese as much so I look to see what kind of milk it contains. It’s on the ingredient label already.”
Tai says market competition for agriculture producers, not consumer confusion, is driving lawmakers to crack down on food labeling.
“What probably is driving this is the rise of lots of these…plant-based [ products ] and the looming potentiality of cell-cultured products, coming on to the market,” Tai suggests.
“And with livestock manufactures, mostly led by the Cattlemen’s Association, being concerned with extra competition,” they add.
Tai says terms like veggie burgers have been used for a long time. But the market dynamics have changed.
“The old way was really just marketed toward vegetarians. It wasn’t trying to replace meat on the plate of meat-eaters, omnivores, whatever. Whereas now, they are not only trying to displace you know regular, live cattle patties on burgers, but they are actually trying to replicate the mouth-feel and look and taste of it and that is a quite distinct phenomenon.”
Tai argues that if meat-alternatives lose the right to be called meat, they should look towards the ways vegetarian options were marketed in the past: valued because of their uniqueness, not because of their likeness to meat.
The bills are currently sitting in committee.
Senator Tammy Baldwin has supported federal legislation that would require milk alternatives to give up the label “milk.”
Of course, Wisconsin has a history of regulating imitations of animal products. Lawmakers banned yellow margarine in the 1950s to protect the butter industry.