Beef can be tasty, nutritious, fresh and fast, so why turn to a vegetable substitute that is high in sodium and offers an inferior source of protein?
That's the message the Kansas beef industry is trying to send using a push-pull strategy that includes developing enticing new products and requiring stiffer labeling oversight.
The Kansas Beef Council teamed up with a prominent Kansas City grocery chain to launch a new product just last week that gives consumers a taste of how real beef stacks up against other convenience options.
Hen House Market, an upscale nine-store chain, started selling colorful grab-and-go "beef bowls" for $5.99 each. The fully assembled dishes feature pre-cooked meats and vegetables that can be heated in the microwave and are ready to eat in three and a half minutes, according to Sharla Huseman, KBC's director of marketing.
The beef council developed the recipes and then worked with the store's meat department to fine-tune them, she said.
"They wanted to offer something in-store that competes with going through the fast food drive-thru after work, but has more of a 'feel good' aspect," she explained. The project appeared to be successful right from the start, when the first five bowls were purchased right off of the cart before they could even be delivered to the display case, she said.
She's hoping other grocery chains will consider offering a similar product.
While product innovation is intended to create a pull-through effect to boost beef demand, the industry is also pushing for clearer product labeling so consumers can quickly and easily distinguish non-meat products when they shop.
Cattlemen have been alarmed to see new plant-based products positioned within the traditional meat department, where they tend to blend in with real meat offerings.
Jerry Bohn, long-time cattle feeder from Pratt, Kan., and president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, carries a picture on his cell phone of a retail beef display, with the word "ground beef" written in large bold lettering that obscures the fine print: the item is in fact made solely from plant-based ingredients.
He points to what happened to dairy producers as proof the industry can't afford to be complacent about deceptive advertising. Alternative milk products have siphoned off around a quarter of all milk sales over the past five years, draining away enough demand to erode already thin margins in the traditional dairy sector.
According to the Plant Based Foods Association, retail sales of plant-based foods have grown nearly 12 percent over the past year, five times the rate of the overall food market.
Labels that refer to plant products as meatloaf, meatballs, beef crumbles and other similar terms are intentionally misleading, said Matt Teagarden, KLA's chief executive officer.
"There is no doubt they are trying to mislead consumers," he said. "The longer those products are out there, the more likely this issue will get away from us."
In an online survey of more than 1,800 consumers, NCBA found that more than one-third of them believed alternative meat products contain at least some actual meat.
Such confusion has prompted Kansas to join at least 13 other states in introducing or passing legislation to provide stronger truth-in-labeling for beef, even though state-by-state laws are not the industry's preferred remedy.
Most food manufacturers operate across state lines and spend lots of money designing attractive, easily identified and consistent product labels.
"State-by-state legislation is not good for anybody," Teagarden acknowledged. "But the inaction at the federal level is unacceptable to us."
The primary challenge has been to create language that is clear, enforceable and capable of withstanding any future legal challenges, Teagarden said.
"We think we've found the right language," he said.
The bill would require non-meat products to prominently state, "this product does not contain meat," or to carry disclaimers like "meat-free" or "meatless" in lettering of equal size, style and font as the product name. This step could be done in-store or at a case-ready packaging facility before being delivered to the retailer, Teagarden said.
The broader goal is to put enough pressure on the federal government to enact a new national labeling standard.
"Our hope is to get around the first amendment challenges these laws have faced and get the right model out there that will force FDA to take action," he said.
The Kansas Cattlemen's Association, a separate membership organization representing cattle producers, is also backing the legislation, according to executive director Tyler Dupy.
Dupy said he was pleased to see the bill referred to the appropriations committee, which means it still has time to be brought to the House floor for consideration during the current legislative session.
Dupy is circulating an image to his members demonstrating what future compliance would look like under the new legislation. It shows a package of Beyond Meat stamped with the word MEATLESS in equal-sized lettering over the words "grass-based ground."
Beyond Meat, which is made from pea, bean or rice protein, is currently being offered for sale by Kansas grocery stores in actual meat cases surrounded by real meat products. Ironically, the label also sports an icon that resembles a Longhorn cow.