Lately I’ve had a change of heart about my feelings regarding the marketing of plant-based meats and other vegetarian or vegan products. But my reasoning — truth and accuracy — remains the same.
This centered around the reactions to two things that have happened in the news lately:
• The ACLU and Tofurky Co. in July filed a joint federal lawsuit against an Arkansas law that requires truth in labeling. Specifically, the law prevents Tofurky from using the word “meat” anywhere in its product packaging. (Tofurky has filed a similiar lawsuit in Missouri, which passed a similar law in 2018.)
• Burger King, a national burger chain, has decided to release the Impossible Whopper nationwide. It’s a basic Whopper with a soy-based patty instead of beef — specifically, Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger.
Like I said, it was the reactions to the stories that I saw on the Globe’s Facebook and Twitter pages, not necessarily the stories themselves that changed my mind. It shocked me how much people care about what other people like to eat and judge them for it.
True truth in labeling
I used to think laws such as Arkansas’ truth in labeling were good ideas. In a nutshell, they prevent makers of vegetarian and vegan products from marketing their products using terms used in the past to describe a specific agricultural product.
Arkansas Rep. David Hillman is a rice farmer and the author of the bill, and he said that producers of those options “realize the only way they can get people to try their product is to confuse them.”
I agreed at first, remembering my first few times with vegetarian products marketed as meat. Decades ago, my mom took me to a vegetarian cafe in Springfield that featured all sorts of tofu-based products shaped to look like deli slices, hot dogs, bacon and more.
It did not look appetizing at all. In those days, I always accepted free meals from parents. But I never went back to that place. Sorry, Mom.
My beef with that not-beef was the impersonation. How dare they try to make a bunch other things look like a hot dog! I know exactly what goes in a hot dog, and it ain’t that! Young me was hilarious and stupid.
But those sorts of exposures really framed my view of Hillman’s bill as a good idea. Things shouldn’t be confusing! People should know exactly what they are getting!
And that thought led to the revelation that changed my mind, and led me to the belief that Hillman’s bill isn’t the best way to solve his problem:
Vegans and vegetarians ALSO want to know exactly what they are getting!
Tofurky is an Oregon-based company that makes food that is “tasty, good for us, good for animals and the environment, and easy to get onto the table on a busy Tuesday night.” They source a lot of organic food, avoid GMO ingredients and put a large focus on environmental activisim. The company’s founder started the company with $2,500 and lived in a treehouse for the next seven years, according to its website.
In short, they are marketing to people who are interested in vegan or vegetarian options.
Hillman’s notion, that a producer like Tofurky wants to “confuse” consumers, makes no sense for Tofurky. If Tofurky wanted to sell something as simply “meat,” it would fail badly, because its target market doesn’t want meat!
The truth in labeling prevents labels from more than general food names such as “cauliflower rice” or “vegan sausage.” If I understand the bill correctly, it would prohibit anything that used the word “meat” anywhere. Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, which is also clearly labeled as a plant-based burger patty, might be targeted for fines or jail time.
On the other hand, the market is growing and evolving. With more people interested in vegan and vegetarian options, enterprising entrepreneurs are developing new products to meet that demand. The competition is improving product quality light years beyond the things I saw decades ago in that Springfield vegetarian cafe.
Those entrepreneurs are keenly interested in identifying their products correctly, so I think the market will adequately police the truth-in-labeling philosophy, making those laws largely irrelevant, and just more government to get in our way.
And that brings me to how the reaction to Burger King’s plant-based Whopper made me change my mind.
Whopper of an argument
Last week, we published an update about that decision to our social networks, and the reaction was fascinating. The reaction went about like you’d expect: Some people were thrilled, other people not so much. Then they started picking apart each others’ food preferences. Others got into a “fooled me”-”didn’t fool me” debate about how much it tastes like a burger.
Guys, no one is trying to fool anyone! And last I checked, ordering the Impossible Whopper is not mandatory. You can order either one!
Any chef will tell you that a big part of a meal is the presentation, and the experience of eating a burger is a uniquely American one. The burger gets plenty of attention for good reason: More than a typical sandwich, the bun and meat offer a wide variety for flavor options.
I can completely understand why a vegan or vegetarian would want the experience of eating a burger without compromising their diet. Plant-based patties make that happen. And if someone wants that, they should be able to get it. Burger King is banking on that market, which says a mouthful about the demand for such options.
I probably am guilty of casting my food preferences on others. It’s probably self-defense: I have friends who insist that kombucha tea, a drink made from fermented mushrooms, is better for me than Diet Dr. Pepper. I have other friends who tell me, a Type 2 diabetic, that regular Dr. Pepper is healthier for me than the diet stuff. I may have done the same kinds of things to them.
If I did, I’m sorry. Because I believe that people should eat what they want to eat, based on their diet, morals, religion or any other preferences. (of course, there are exceptions for certain criminal acts, but that’s another column.)
The next time I grill, I may not choose to eat a plant-based patty in my burger. But I would happily grill one for you, if that’s what you wanted.
Joe Hadsall is web editor for the Globe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.