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The First Amendment and alternative proteinsThe First Amendment and alternative proteins

How should petri-dish proteins be labeled? Is it infringing on a company’s First Amendment rights to free speech to limit what's on the label?

Amanda Radke

July 6, 2020

5 Min Read
Photo: Steak: Carsten Koall/Getty Images; Sign: Willie Vogt

Independence Day may have come and gone, but it's clear that patriotism is alive and well in this country. I don’t know about you, but it was so nice to unplug for a few days and spend some time with family, friends and fellow patriots as we celebrated our God-given freedoms and liberties that we enjoy in the United States of America.

And whether you spent the holiday participating at a peaceful rally or shooting off an explosive display of colorful fireworks, the best part about our country is our First Amendment — the freedom of speech.

As a blogger, writer and speaker by trade, this freedom is not lost on me. We are a country of free thinkers, and I hope our ability to freely express our opinions without fear of repercussion is something that is never stripped from us.

All that said, sometimes the First Amendment can be distorted in a way that does harm to others. I’m not talking about being offensive or saying something that isn’t considered politically correct or in poor taste. I’m talking about something that leads to less transparency and greater consumer confusion in the marketplace.

On June 9, a letter submitted by individuals at Harvard Law School cited the First Amendment as the main reason why cell-cultured protein companies should be able to freely label their products as they see fit.

Related:Are fake meats gaining traction this summer?

Here is an excerpt from the letter:

“The Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic writes to respectfully urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to adopt a labeling approach for cell-based meat and poultry products that does not overly restrict speech and that respects the First Amendment. The Animal Law & Policy Clinic (ALPC) undertakes work in the area of animal law and policy, domestically and internationally, and focuses on high-impact opportunities to improve the treatment of animals through litigation, policy analysis, and applied academic research.

“As part of this work, ALPC closely monitors technological developments within the food sector that have the potential to affect animals. Cell-based meat and poultry products (hereinafter referred to collectively as ‘cell-based meat,’ also known as ‘cultured’ or ‘cultivated’ meat) are such innovations in food, with tremendous potential to positively impact animals, human health, and environmental sustainability.

“As USDA Secretary Perdue envisions, cell-based meat could even offer a way to meet the tremendous protein needs of the growing global population. While the regulatory pathway for cell-based meats is not yet entirely defined, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service has recognized cell-based meat and poultry products as ‘meat’ and ‘poultry’ products under its governing statutes, has asserted jurisdiction over labeling for such products, and is in the process of drafting labeling regulations for cell-based meats.

Related:8 things about fake meats for beef producers to consider

“It is at this juncture that ALPC writes to urge USDA-FSIS to adopt a labeling approach that does not overly restrict speech and respects the protections afforded to commercial speech under the First Amendment. As detailed extensively below, a ban on the use of common or standardized meat and poultry terms on non-misleading cell-based meat labels is likely unconstitutional, as are labeling restrictions that are more extensive than necessary.

“USDA-FSIS should wait until it has a better understanding of the composition and safety of finished cell-based meat products and an opportunity to review proposed labels before establishing speech restrictions that raise constitutional questions. By delaying the establishment of restrictive labeling requirements, USDA-FSIS will be able to assess whether, or to what extent, such speech restrictions are actually necessary in order to protect consumers from being misled.

“Further, USDA-FSIS should only compel process-based disclosures or qualifiers on cell-based meat labels on a case-by-case basis when doing so is necessary to protect consumers from an increased food safety risk or material compositional difference.”

While the folks at Harvard build a good case, I urge USDA to ensure that these products are clearly labeled to distinguish what is grown in a petri dish compared to what is produced on the hoof.

Clearly, these products are going to make claims on environmental, animal welfare and nutritional superiority to traditional meat products, as stated in this letter. While these claims are unproven and unsubstantiated, there should also be clearly defined labeling rules in place that limits these companies from also stealing our nomenclature and posing as regular beef.

Although I could talk at great lengths on this topic, I’ll leave you with this — every food offered to consumers should have to follow the same rigorous testing, limitations on marketing claims and proper and clear labeling rules, no matter what. Whether it’s traditional butter or a new-age petri dish protein, consumers deserve clear, transparent and well-defined labels that allow them to make educated and informed decisions in the grocery store.

By the way, I recently sat down with Willie Vogt, Farm Progress executive director, to discuss alternative protein trends, summer grilling, beef nutrition and more.

The interview was featured on the Around Farm Progress podcast. Of our chat, Vogt writes, “Beef, it's on the grill this summer. But there's more going on with the beef industry, from how to cook the high-quality protein properly, to climate change, to a changing competitive landscape.

“To explore those topics, in this episode of the podcast Around Farm Progress, Amanda Radke, long-time blogger for BEEF magazine, offers insight on a few hot topics, from grilling resources, to climate change and she even discusses the marketing approaches taken by meat-alternative companies. Oh, and she has an up-and-coming competitor in promoting beef, her daughter Scarlett.”

Listen to the entire conversation by clicking here.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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