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  • Writer's pictureMike von Massow

Is the “Meat” and “Milk” Battle Worth Fighting?


There has been considerable debate about using the words “meat” or “milk” to describe plant-based alternatives. The battle has spread more broadly to include terms like “burger” and “cheese.” It is worth asking the question as to whether this is a battle worth fighting.

The consumer research is somewhat equivocal with respect to whether consumers are confused by the inclusion of the word meat or milk to describe a plant-based alternative. The surveys generally suggest that less than 10% of consumers think that products like almond milk or Beyond Meat Burgers actually contain cow’s milk or beef. We can get into a discussion as to the merits of different survey approaches and how questions are posed but that’s for another time.

Is it worth “protecting” that less than 10% of consumers who might believe that almond milk has at least some cow’s milk in it? There is little evidence that consumers are buying these plant-based products based on that confusion. People who buy these products are explicitly seeking out alternatives for a variety of reasons. These products are usually in different sections of the store and, in most cases, are more expensive. I can’t imagine that many people are in stores and thinking that soymilk is just a novel dairy product.

It is worth noting that there needs to be enough clarity on the label to highlight for consumers who are trying to avoid milk or meat that the product doesn’t have meat or milk in it. This more extensive labelling may not be reflected in a survey. I checked several product labels and all of them have significant additional wording to highlight that these products are dairy-free or meat-free. If that was not included there would be confusion for the customers that are the primary target for the products who are explicitly looking for products that aren’t animal-based. This nuance is unlikely to be reflected in a survey type question. It means that the true degree of confusion is likely much lower than the estimates might suggest.

One might argue that any amount of confusion is bad and it could be completely avoided by prohibiting the use of the words milk, meat, burger, etc. That would likely be true. I would argue, however, that this strident discussion on wording is raising the profile of the analogues. Consumers might be intrigued by the products and think that if the industry doesn’t want them labeled milk or meat that perhaps they are very good substitutes and worth consideration. You raise the profile of things that you defend most aggressively against.

I’d argue that the industry should let this battle go. Dairy and meat are the industry leaders. Any alternative is shooting to take their share. Rather than focusing energy and time on the new competitors, reinforce for consumers why they love the products they have now. Share is likely going down domestically, the focus should be on keeping as much of it as possible. That’s the challenge if you are the established large share product on the market.


Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Is the “Meat” and “Milk” Battle Worth Fighting?". Food Focus Guelph (69), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, December 13th, 2019.


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