Daniel Humm has a three Michelin Star restaurant in Manhattan called Eleven Madison Park. It’s kind of a big deal restaurant, and diners pay dearly for the privilege of eating there. Dinner for two can easily cost $500. More if you get wine. Humm announced that when he reopens, it will be meatless, fishless, animalless food. He will forego the ingredients upon which his fame and fortune were established in favor of veggies, and he needs to let his future patrons know why.
It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community. A restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate. We are thrilled to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine while deepening our connection to our homes: both our city and our planet.
There’s nothing wrong with a veggie restaurant, and nothing wrong with people who prefer to eat veggies rather than meat. To each his own. Whether diners will pay $500 for meatless entrees has yet to be seen, and whether his new menu merits the three stars he earned serving foie gras has yet to be determined. But his risky shift isn’t a matter of mere preference for vegan cuisine, but an attempt to “redefine luxury” and turn dinner into a “higher purpose” rather than an excellent meal.
In other words, good people don’t eat meat.
At the lower end of the food chain, this has become a culture war battle, invoking political fringiness and even the First Amendment.
I want to be clear that meat has been a “culture war” issue for a while. The meat industry relentlessly associates the consumption of animal flesh with masculinity and patriotism. But today more people are recognizing the catastrophic environmental consequences of meat and these folks tend to care about the climate crisis, which means they’re disproportionately progressive, which means people like Hotline Josh pick up on meat’s culture war valence because it falls along traditional partisan lines and becomes woke-adjacent Fox News fodder.
Do people eat meat out of masculinity and patriotism or because they prefer, enjoy, desire meat? No doubt there are some who see red meat as a manly thing to eat, but are all, even most, Dems vegans? If you look in their fridge, will you find a burger? And if you do, what will that burger be made of?
Nowadays, many summer cookouts may feature veggie burgers and vegan hot dogs along with the more traditional meaty offerings. But a new law in Mississippi threatens to destroy the market for these meat alternatives by making it illegal for vegetarian and vegan food manufacturers to use the name of any meat or meat product in their labeling.
That’s right: Mississippi wants to stop businesses from calling a meatless patty a veggie burger.
Is this a First Amendment problem, a definitional problem or a likeihood of confusion problem? It’s one thing to call a plant-based product meat, defined as the flesh of an animal used for food. If it’s made from alfalfa, it ain’t meat. But then, does that mean it can’t be a burger, a patty made of ground food material?
So we have reached a curious place: Republicans want to turbocharge meat as a culture war issue at the same time that they seek to gag companies from exercising their First Amendment rights to say “plant-based meat.” Insert joke about cancel culture here.
This isn’t wrong, as much as it’s disingenuous. Progressives want to “turbocharge” eradicating meat for the sake of the environment and ridicule meat’s defenders as right wing nuts, as if those Dems, and, dare I say it, progressives who want meat don’t exist. And the cancel culture jab is gratuitous nonsense. Is there a First Amendment right to say “plant-based meat”?
As commercial speech, excepted from full free speech protection, it isn’t quite as simplistic as presented. No, there is no right to mislead consumers as to the nature of a product. Then again, is anybody being misled by a product called the “Impossible burger”?
Although pitched as a consumer protection measure, nobody who buys Upton’s Naturals products thinks they’re buying meat. Instead, they seek out these products because they want to enjoy a tasty burger without compromising their health goals or ethical values by eating meat.
The real reason for Mississippi’s law is obvious: Meat producers and the cattle lobby are feeling the pinch of competition as consumers seek out alternatives to beef and pork, and they want to insulate themselves from their competitors. But the government has no business keeping consumers in the dark—or prohibiting the use of terms that consumers actually understand—in order to protect special interests from honest competition.
This argument, too, is both correct and disingenuous. For now, plant-based burgers (note that I don’t call them “meat,” but burgers) are pretty clearly not made of meat. That’s true now, largely because it’s a core component of marketing the product. They are selling to a particular cohort of buyer who wants to “enjoy a tasty burger without compromising their health goals or ethical values by eating meat.”
But if there are no limits, will that be true in the future? Will the veggie part slide off the front of the package, only to be found in the small print on the back should people figure out that these burgers are, indeed, impossible and can’t mange to compete with the real deal?
As for “meat producers and the cattle lobby,” why wouldn’t they fight to protect their brand, their product? This is how they make their living, how they survive. Is that not a reasonable thing to do? Why would they not be concerned about another product poaching their turf?
But the really disingenuous aspect to this argument is that if Team Veggie was sincere about its product, why not come up with its own unique language for it rather than desperately seeking to free-ride off Team Meat? What’s wrong with veggie patties rather than Impossible Burgers™? Why hide what they are at all if what they are is healthy, ethical and delish?
And yes, this is happening with milk as well. There are no teats on an almond, so why not call it “almond juice” rather than milk? Orange growers never tried to call their beverage “orange milk” and have done pretty well with it.
The reason Humm’s big announcement that his restaurant is going meatless made a culture war splash isn’t that there’s any problem with his decision, which will either work or Eleven Madison Park will go the way of Bouley, but because of the “redefine luxury” contention, turning meat into the food of evil, heartless, climate-destroying Republicans. It’s not about whether you prefer veggies for health or ethics, but whether only bad people (and cute progressive doggies) eat meat.