Samples of beef, including, from left, hamburger from a store, cultured beef and raw beef. (Maastricht University/Bloomberg News)

On Aug. 28, a law went into effect in Missouri that makes it a crime to use the term “meat” to describe any product that does not come from a “livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof.” The same day, a number of plaintiffs — including Tofurky, a maker of plant-based meat alternatives; the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri; the Good Food Institute, a recently formed lobby group; and the Animal Legal Defense Fund — filed a lawsuit alleging that the statute violates the First Amendment.

Clearly, both sides understand that regulation serves two purposes: to protect consumers and to prevent entry into a market.

This isn’t an isolated incident. This food fight is part of a growing battle over the future of American food. Two lines of political inquiry — one concerned with the politics of regulation and the other with the American meat industry’s political strategies — can help explain.

As meat alternatives have gotten more popular, the meat industry has turned to regulators

In the past few years, “alternative” food products such as soy milk, tofu and plant-based burgers have expanded their share of the market exponentially, with even KFC working on faux chicken.

That’s in part because the products’ verisimilitude has increased significantly. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved one company’s product additive that mimics heme, which gives meat its unique metallic tinge.

The animal products industry has responded by turning to regulators. It has petitioned the FDA to enforce its definitions of mayo. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) has introduced a bill that would make it illegal for nondairy products to be called milk.

The stakes will get higher soon, as new lab-grown meat comes to market

But there’s another factor, as well. Some consumers object to killing animals or treating them cruelly before slaughter. In response, some start-ups and venture capitalists have been developing in vitro meat technology that would grow meat from stem cells, bypassing living animals entirely.

Early versions already appear to be virtually identical to conventional meat in taste and genetic makeup. Boosters argue that the new meat will transform U.S. food production, eliminating conventional meat’s ill effects on the environment and animals — without altering what Americans eat.

Consumers may be ready: Recent survey research suggests that 95 percent of Americans care about animal welfare. What’s more, a stunning 49 percent and 47 percent, respectively, think factory farms and slaughterhouses should be abolished. Meanwhile, most Americans regularly eat meat.

Not surprisingly, both the meat industry and meat-alternative producers want to influence the regulators

Regulation experts Jason and Susan Webb Yackee have used large bodies of data to show that U.S. business interests “enjoy disproportionate influence over rulemaking.” Big business can influence rulemaking, they explain, because it can deploy “lawyers, lobbyists, or experts who are trained in drafting convincing arguments on fine technical points.”

In doing so, large business interests can tilt the scales not just against the public interest but also against potential competitors.

So who is going to regulate alternative meats and in vitro meat? The answer will determine which special interests have more influence on shaping the future of the market. Just now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA are in a tug-of-war over whose purview this will be. In theory, meat producers favor the USDA, which has a dual mandate of regulating and promoting agricultural products, while alternative-meat producers favor the FDA, which regulates food and drug safety and does not have any other relationship with the agriculture industry.

But it’s certainly possible that the FDA will define “meat” as a product of living animals, which could cause marketing and legal problems in the future for new companies. To influence those rules and definitions, alternative-meat producers have created the Good Food Institute (GFI), a dedicated lobby group, to champion their collective legal and regulatory interests.

The Missouri law tries to preempt federal regulators

Missouri, of course, is an agricultural state. So it may not be surprising that its legislators have tried to get ahead of — and possibly influence — regulatory decisions by legally defining “meat” as the product of an animal’s “carcass,” differentiating it from both plant-based and in vitro alternatives.

The new statute is just one way the meat industry has been using the law to protect its interests. As animal rights activists have been exposing what many consider unsavory industry practices, meat producers supported the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) and pushed state legislatures to pass anti-whistleblower laws that opponents call “ag-gag” statutes.

The political communication scholar Garrett Broad has argued that these efforts are specifically designed to head off political critique and ethical outrage. The goal, he writes, is to “perpetuat[e] public ignorance related to animal production processes.” Recent work by political ethnographers bears this out. Timothy Pachirat, who worked undercover in a Midwestern slaughterhouse, shows that meat processors actively hide many aspects of production not only from public scrutiny but also from USDA inspectors. My own research finds that the industry is less interested in transparency and more concerned with public outreach aimed at generating consumer goodwill.

But the “meat industry” may be about to fracture, as old-style agribusiness invests in meat alternatives. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) represents major processors such as Tyson and Cargill, many of which have begun to invest in meat alternatives. NAMI opposed one effort to change the definition of the word “meat” and has even partnered with an in vitro start-up to argue for joint USDA-FDA regulation, which the two agencies will consider at a meeting on animal cell agriculture technology in October.

In other words, farmers who raise animals are fighting to defend their economic interests, and new companies are maneuvering to promote theirs. Larger food companies, meanwhile, are looking for profitable developments, irrespective of whether these involve farmers and animals.

Any new technology requires regulation and legislation. In vitro meat is no different. The fight over who regulates it and what laws and regulations govern it will determine what kind of food Americans eat in the coming decades.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post stated that NAMI has opposed efforts to alter the USDA’s definition of meat, although it has publicly opposed only one such effort.

Jan Dutkiewicz is the Connie Caplan postdoctoral fellow in the Political Science Department at Johns Hopkins University.