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As Impossible Burgers Are Introduced in Stores, What Legal Issues are Meat Alternative Makers Facing?

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 14: Impossible Burger on display at WIRED25 Festival: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary – Day 2 on October 14, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25 )
By Laura Temme, Esq. on September 24, 2019

Impossible Burgers hit the shelves of Gelson’s Markets in California on Sept. 20, and the company says they aim to make them available nationwide by mid-2020. At $8.99 for a 12-ounce package, the Impossible Patties come at a higher price point than ground beef – but many consumers don’t seem to care, as the meat alternative industry continues to grow.

The Impossible Burger already has several competitors, including the Beyond Burger by Beyond Meat, Kellogg’s Morningstar Farm line of meat alternatives, and a beef/pea protein burger introduced by Tyson this fall. Beyond Meat experienced a wildly successful IPO earlier this year. In what is shaping up to be a multi-billion-dollar market, there’s little doubt other food companies will soon think about joining the fake meat party. And like any other industry, the businesses selling these products face unique legal challenges.

State Pushback on Labeling

Despite positive feedback from consumers, companies producing meat alternatives have encountered significant pushback from some state governments citing concerns about buyer confusion. So far, 25 states have introduced legislation restricting the use of words like “meat,” “burger,” and “sausage” as applied to plant-based products. Such laws passed in Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, and South Dakota.

Several of these state laws face challenges in the courts, but it remains to be seen whether sellers of meat alternatives will need to dramatically change how they market their products.

IP Protections

What sets the Impossible Burger apart from competitors is its use of plant-based heme, a molecule that gives meat its smell and sizzle when you cook it. To accomplish this “impossible” effect with a plant-based product, Impossible Foods employs around 120 scientists and plans to double that number in the next 18 months. As meat alternatives become more sophisticated, the companies making them will likely encounter unique issues in the world of patents and trade secrets.

Restaurant Contracts

The meat alternative’s place in restaurants, especially fast food chains, is still in experimental stages. Impossible Burgers already appear on menus at Burger King, Red Robin, Cheesecake Factory and other select restaurants, while Beyond Meat products were picked up by Tim Horton’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Del Taco. Strategic deals could make all the difference going forward, as various companies battle it out to be the best substitute for juicy beef.

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