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OPINION

Regulators' food fight isn't about consumers

Posted on September 6, 2020

Columns

If Ander Christensen doesn’t parlay his viral video stardom into a political campaign, there might be a federal government job waiting for him.

The Nebraska man made an impassioned plea to the Lincoln City Council: Tell restaurants to rename boneless chicken wings on their menus, as the meaty morsels are “just chicken tenders.”

“...We’ve been living a lie for far too long, and we know it — and we feel it in our bones,” Christensen said to a rumble of laughter and a smattering of applause.

During his tongue-in-cheek public comment, Councilman Roy Christensen’s 20-something son suggested “Buffalo-style chicken tenders,” “wet tenders” and “saucy nugs” as alternatives.

Those would be a marked improvement over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s actual name for the product. The agency doesn’t regulate restaurant menus, but its Food and Safety Inspection Service decreed that “wyngz” with a Y and a Z is the closest facsimile of “boneless wings” it will allow on food packaging.

Bureaucrats think misspelling a common word creates an entirely new word, which is why there are precise distinctions between “light” and “lite.”

Arcane food labeling rules might seem frivolous if manufacturers weren’t trying to weaponize them in an effort to give their products a competitive advantage. Egged on by industry lobbyists, regulators are pushing for plant-based foods like meatless burgers and almond milk to adopt unappetizing new names.

In July 2018, the Food and Drug Administration published a proposed rule that would ban the word “milk” from almond, soy and coconut milk containers. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 gives the agency authority to police “standards of identity” on commercial food labels to ensure descriptions aren’t false or misleading.

“An almond does not lactate,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb reasoned, a deadpan declaration every bit as funny as ranting to your city council about the scourge of boneless wings.

The FDA has yet to issue a final rule on nut milks. The dairy industry, which feigns concern about consumer confusion but really wants to kneecap competitors and preserve its market share, would prefer to limit plant-based alternatives to the less appealing “nut juice.”

An existing rule requires dairies to fortify their skim milk with vitamins A and D in order to call it “skim milk,” but the FDA agreed to halt enforcement in April when Maryland’s South Mountain Creamery sued, citing another milk producer’s successful 2017 case against the Florida Department of Agriculture. State regulators tried to insist on “imitation skim milk,” which sounds more like some ghastly science experiment than genuine milk without additives.

A Missouri law that took effect last year prevents meat substitutes from using the word “meat” and requires terms like “plant-based” or “laboratory-grown” to feature prominently on product labels. Legal wrangling continues after a judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction.

Courts generally take a dim view of onerous labeling restrictions, which may prevent “soy juice” from showing up in your supermarket’s dairy cooler anytime soon. Judges often side with food manufacturers, who assert a First Amendment right to market animal product alternatives by naming them after the things they’re meant to replace.

A federal judge in California sided with Miyoko’s last month in its suit against state regulators who forbade the term “vegan butter.” Bureaucrats couldn’t show that the plant-based spread misled even a single consumer.

Meat, milk and butter alternatives aren’t trying to pass themselves off as the real McCoy. They’re more expensive than their animal-derived counterparts, and only shoppers who want the plant-based version are willing to pay the difference. Claims of widespread confusion are disingenuous.

Baylen Linnekin, author of “Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable,” says many labeling rules boil down to protectionism.

“The dairy industry has been making a living out of seeking government protection against its competitors since, perhaps, the dawn of time. And the federal government (along with state governments) has a long and sordid history of obliging the industry,” he wrote in Reason magazine.

As long as food names aren’t blatantly false, manufacturers should have some room to experiment. Labeling is an integral part of marketing. Let companies discover on their own that “Buffalo-style tenders” sound savory while the USDA-approved “wyngz” evokes ‘80s hair bands and looks too artificial to whet anyone’s appetite.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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