Rep. Roger Marshall, Kansas’ 1st District congressman, has a big idea. Alongside Rep. Anthony Brindisi, of New York, he has decided the government should have a bigger role in regulating free speech.
That’s not the way Marshall puts it, of course. His Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully (MEAT) Act supposedly protects consumers from inaccurate labeling. What kind of inaccurate labeling, you might ask? Is it about sugar or salt or fat, or the other substances that dietitians claim we should restrain from consuming?
Not at all. The terrifying targets of the proposed law are ... plants.
That’s right, as plant-based meat products grow in popularity (Burger King’s Impossible Whopper being the most high profile), meat producers see a threat. Their proposed solution is to slap labels on these products that make clear they’re not actually meat.
Or as Marshall puts it: “Consumers should be able to rely on the information on food labels they see on the shelves to be truthful and not deceptive. For years now, alternative protein products have confused many consumers with misleading packaging and creative names for products. With this bill, consumers can be sure that the meat products they are buying are indeed real meat.”
We appreciate the importance of Kansas beef producers and the contributions they make to our agricultural sector. But color us skeptical that the MEAT Act is anything close to necessary.
There are two big problems. First, we would very much like to meet the confused consumers that Marshall mentions. The whole point of plant-based meat substitutes is that they aren’t meat. That’s why people buy and eat them. Calling them “fake” or “imitation” would likely add to, rather than reduce, confusion.
Second, for a politician as avowedly conservative as Marshall, it seems curious he is so interested in dictating the speech choices of businesses in the free market. The First Amendment says the government should make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Courts have taken such an expansive view of the amendment that it now covers money spent for elections.
No doubt meat producers would protest loudly if a liberal congressperson said steaks should be labeled with their possible artery-clogging consequences.
If somehow, somewhere, a plant-based meat producer actually labels its products as 100 percent American beef, we trust that existing laws and regulations in place — not to mention clear condemnation from the market — will suffice. In the vast majority of cases, however, we are seeing healthy market competition of the kind that conservatives are supposed to favor. The MEAT Act is a solution in search of a problem.