The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How meat producers are trying to avoid becoming like dairy farmers competing with nut ‘milks’

(Illustration by Joe Magee/For The Washington Post)

At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night last May, Fancy Radish, a vegetarian restaurant in Washington's H Street corridor, was hopping. A willowy 20-something dressed in a flowing jumpsuit stood by the door chatting with two asparagus-thin friends in off-the-shoulder tops. So it was easy to spot Kevin Kester, then the president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, in his light brown cowboy hat and a gold, steer-shaped pin emblazoned with the stars and stripes on the lapel of his blazer. (The hat, I later learned, is 100 percent beaver and was custom-made in honor of his tenure by Greeley Hat Works in Colorado; it would retail for about $1,000.) For the beef industry's top lobbyist, trips to Washington often involved dinners at restaurants like the Capital Grille, Mastro's, Ruth's Chris or Fogo de Chão, where he usually ordered a porterhouse because, he said, "it has both the New York strip and the filet. And it's a very large steak."

I’d invited him here to see how he would fare at a restaurant that prides itself on vegetarian “charcuterie.” But I quickly learned that Kester has no beef with vegetarians. In fact, he enjoys many a vegetable himself: “Avocado, yes. Beets, yes. Radishes, yes,” he said as he scanned the menu. By the time he had drained his pineapple-pandan soda and dutifully swallowed part of the last course, an avocado topped with pickled cauliflower, I’d learned that what worried him — and what brought him to Washington often — was “fake” meat.

By fake, Kester meant the plant-based burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have elbowed their way into grocery-store meat cases next to the sirloins and ground round. In January, Impossible Foods, which is backed by Bill Gates, announced that it is developing a plant-based “steak” that bleeds. Even more worrisome is the much-ballyhooed, but not yet commercially available, “lab” or “cultured” meat, cultivated from animal cells without raising or slaughtering an animal.

Fighting fake meat is NCBA’s top priority for 2019. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2018, it spent $766,500 on the midterm elections, nearly all of it going to Republicans. The cattlemen are trying to persuade federal officials to more closely oversee meat alternatives. The Food and Drug Administration regulates plant-based “meat” and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat. The meat industry wants the USDA to inspect lab-grown products and regulate what they are called: Kester and his colleagues want to ban terms such as “clean meat,” which seems to imply that your steak is dirty. In November, the USDA and FDA announced a joint framework for cell-based meat regulation. In a statement, NCBA called it a positive step but still a skeleton: “Now the federal agencies need to put (real) meat on the bones.”

Meat lobbyists have also taken their fight to the states. On Jan. 1, Missouri became the first to regulate the names of aspiring meat alternatives, restricting the word “meat” to only products harvested from livestock. (It has already been challenged in court.) Nebraska lawmakers are considering making it a crime to advertise or sell any product as meat “that is not derived from poultry or livestock.” Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming are also looking at the issue.

The level of concern over what is essentially a marketing question is a little surprising given that the beef industry has seemingly bigger problems. Day after day, animal-welfare advocates and environmentalists depict its industrial system — in which cattle live cheek by jowl and are fattened on grain and pumped full of antibiotics before slaughter — as cruel and dangerous and a major driver of climate change. But burying emerging competitors is simpler than retooling an entire industry — and it’s long been part of the standard food-producer playbook.

In the 1870s, the dairy industry viciously attacked margarine, a cheaper, shelf-stable alternative to butter. Dairy states, including New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, went so far as to ban margarine. Later, Congress passed the federal Oleomargarine Act, imposing a 2-cent-per-pound tax on the stuff. In 2014, Unilever went after egg-alternative producer Hampton Creek Foods (now Just Inc.), arguing that it couldn’t call its product Just Mayo because the FDA’s definition of mayonnaise mandates real eggs. (Unilever dropped the suit.) The dairy industry has also argued that the FDA should prevent plant-based milks, such as soy and almond, from using the word “milk” — though it has been used since the 1980s. (The courts have consistently ruled against the dairy industry, but FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb appears sympathetic, telling an audience in Virginia in July that “an almond doesn’t lactate.”)

In Kester’s view, the dairy industry’s lackadaisical approach to competitors and the FDA’s lax enforcement of its definition of milk — which states that it must come from the lacteal secretion of one or more healthy cows — created the problem. “Five or 10 years from now, fake meat will have a product that is viable from a cost standpoint,” Kester told me at dinner. “We have to make sure that everyone plays by the same rules.”

But do those rules mean that so-called fake meat companies can use the word “meat”? “I certainly wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t a path to calling our cultured meat products ‘meat,’ ” said Josh Tetrick, Just Inc.’s chief executive, who plans to soon unveil cultured chicken and recently inked a deal to work with Toriyama, a Japanese producer of wagyu beef. He added that he is happy to put the word “cultured” on the front of a package for now but expects that as cultured meat becomes more common it will no longer be necessary: “We used to call an iPhone a smartphone. Now we just call it a phone.”

Even if cattlemen succeed in Washington, their industry remains at the mercy of consumers, a less predictable audience than Congress. If fake meat tastes good and costs less, the cattlemen may still find themselves in the same situation as the dairy industry. After all, the growth of nondairy milk sales (up 61 percent between 2012 and 2017) is driven by more than the product name. Some meat producers are even hedging their bets by buying into fake meat. Tyson Foods has invested in Beyond Meat and, along with Cargill, another major U.S. meat producer, taken a stake in cultured-meat firm Memphis Meats.

Kester, though, is confident that U.S. tastes won’t change. “Personally, I’d choose a tasty, traditionally produced rib-eye steak over a tofu burger or something out of a petri dish every single day of the week,” he said. “And I’m guessing that the vast majority of American consumers will do the same.”

Jane Black is a writer in Washington.

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