U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska Wednesday introduced the Real MEAT Act in an effort to end "deceptive" labeling practices for alternative protein products.

The goal of the bill is to clarify the definition of beef for labeling purposes and would increase the federal government’s ability to enforce laws requiring products to be labeled as imitation.

“As part of a new food fad, fake-meat companies are creating plant-based products meant to imitate real beef, but they are running dishonest smear campaigns to do so,” Fischer, a member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, said.

“These companies are using deceptive labeling and marketing practices that have left consumers with false ideas about what ingredients and the nutritional value of fake-beef is. For example, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association found that 80% of consumers falsely believe that fake-meat is just as healthy or healthier than real beef when in fact, lean ground beef has more zinc, iron and B vitamins as well as more protein and less saturated fat than the fake-meat meat products of equal weight.”

Fischer pointed out that California-based Beyond Burger was forced to remove false information from its website that claimed eating meat increases chances of getting cancer and heart disease. The company failed to mention that the study cited was referring only to highly processed meat, not fresh beef.

“The confusion extends beyond nutrition,” Fischer said. “Consumers are also unsure about what these products are actually made of. Fifty-five percent of consumers do not know that plant-based protein products are not beef at all, but rather entirely vegetarian or vegan. People are confused, and solving that confusion means dealing with deceptive labeling, which is why I introduced the Real MEAT Act.”

The legislation will take several steps to address this uncertainty in the grocery store, Fisher said. First, it will codify the definitions of beef and beef products. Next, it will ensure that imitation meat products have the word “imitation” in the same size and prominence before or after the name of the food. Third, it will add a clear statement indicating that imitation products do not contain meat. Ffinally, Fischer said, the bill will strengthen the government’s ability to enforce the law by providing a mechanism for the Department of Agriculture to seek enforcement actions against these mislabeled products.

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said in a statement that he applauds the proposed legislation.

“This important piece of legislation provides additional transparency to consumers and restores labeling integrity for plant-based products,” Nelson said. “Nebraska is ‘The Beef State’ and while we fully support consumers being able to purchase whatever food products they wish, they must also know that when a product label uses words like ‘beef’ it was derived from cattle and not from plants.”

Nebraska Cattlemen President Ken Herz issued a statement supporting Fischer’s efforts.

“Real beef, raised by actual farmers and ranchers in the state of Nebraska creates $13.8 billion total economic impact to our state,” Herz said. “Protecting the legacy of these farmers and ranchers by ensuring imitation proteins do not capitalize on beef’s good name and reputation is, and will continue to be, a priority for the Nebraska Cattlemen,”

Fischer said that typically people understand that when Burger King calls a burger “impossible” that it likely isn’t actual beef, but that isn’t always the case in the grocery store when the consumer goes to grab a package of hamburgers.

“We need to make sure right now that it’s clearly labeled so that people know what they’re getting,” she said. “Consumers should have a choice. If people want to buy plant-based protein, they can do so. But we want to make sure that people understand that real beef is much healthier. Real beef has one ingredient – beef. You have the impossible burger and Beyond Burger – they have over 20 ingredients. We want people to be able to identify that and know what they’re buying and what they’re eating.”

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Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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