Oped: When it comes to food, what's in a name?

Richard Williams
Tribune News Service

Vegetarian interlopers are carving out a growing foothold in the meat and dairy sections of America's grocery stores, and the conventional food industry is not happy about it. Fearing substitute products that increasingly look and taste like the real thing, the beef and dairy industries recently asked the federal government to protect their once-exclusive claims to words like "beef," "meat" and "milk."

Some people are uneasy with the idea that foods aren't as clearly defined as they once were. That's understandable, but the multitude of U.S. food "identity standards" already in place don't do us much good.

Consumers are well-protected by the Food and Drug Administration when they buy slices of pineapple which must "consist of uniformly cut circular slices or rings cut across the axis of the peeled, cored pineapple cylinders." Because of this regulation, consumers know that the pieces of pineapple inside are not spears, chunks, tidbits or any other of the nine designated categories.

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But if they are shopping in the meat section, how do they know whether burgers are made from butchered animals, as opposed to vegetables? Or that milk was squeezed from a cow?

Food standards of identity, which regulate the ingredients of about half of all foods in the United States, tell manufacturers what is and is not allowed to be associated with a "common or usual" name of a food. Ketchup is standardized (even if the spelling isn't); mustard is not. Nor is salsa. It took the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals to establish a standard of identity for peanut butter.

In 1938, Congress passed a law that mandated food standards, primarily to keep manufacturers from adding worthless or poisonous ingredients like sawdust and copper sulfate to foods. Fast forward 80 years, and we have a food standard that demands that fruit cocktail contain "not less than 2 sectors or 3 dice of pineapple" (yes, more pineapple) and a minimum number of cherries. But if you don't like the mix of fruits, you can, as consumers do every day, buy another brand.

Arguments over naming are likely to have the same effect as the aforementioned peanut butter controversy that one attorney observed "put many lawyers' children through college." Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal reported this month, "(c)attlemen and dairy farmers are saddling up, and lawyering up."

New technology will always be disruptive. In fact, that's the goal. It's understandable that the incumbent meat industry would pull out all the stops and spend millions trying to marginalize new products. However, this does not mean the FDA and USDA should acquiesce. The job of the government is to protect competition, not competitors.

There are vastly more important things for FDA and USDA to do with food. They haven't made a dent in food-borne disease for decades. There are, every year, 48 million cases. Spending more time on wordsmithing food names would be a very poor use of resources.

— Richard Williams is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.