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During the pandemic, plant-based meat consumption and media coverage exploded. Now, a host of trend pieces decry its demise. That shift is no organic accident.
Words by Jessica Scott-Reid
Remember when plant-based meats were cool? It was sometime around 2020; we were at home, bored, worrying about our health, the planet and the future. Enter Beyond Burger, a cholesterol-free, pea-protein patty that bleeds beet juice and requires 90 percent less water and 100 percent fewer dead cows than beef. It is the delicious, guilt-free innovation that so many of us — vegans, flexitarians and general foodies alike — were waiting for.
Sales skyrocketed. The company went public. More plant-based brands blasted into the space, and the Guardian declared plant-based meat “mainstream.” The planet, the animals and our arteries rejoiced.
But then something happened. By late 2022, early 2023, the narrative shifted. Bloomberg cried: Fake Meat Was Supposed to Save the World. It Became Just Another Fad. Forbes deemed it the Plant Based Fail, and even the Guardian wrote of “why plant-based meat’s sizzle fizzled.” Beyond Meat’s stock took a dip and Impossible Foods fired a bunch of people. Outlets like Better Home and Garden and GQ began questioning if the Impossible Whopper and other plant-meats were even good for you. How did this happen?
How did the next big thing in food modernization, climate action and harm reduction suddenly become reduced to a fake product as terrible as Twinkies and as unhealthy as, well, chicken nuggets? Who or what could possibly benefit from consumers turning their backs on products that taste like dead farmed animals, but aren’t actually made of dead farmed animals?
Take a wild guess.
Numerous food writers, business journalists and vegan commentators jumped into the media mayhem in an effort to explain the hows and whys of the so-called plant-based bust. Vox’s Kenny Torrella explained that the sector got a sales bump during the pandemic, “but the products weren’t good enough to keep most consumers coming back for more, and then inflation spiked food prices, and now here we are.” For Fast Company, Brain Kateman put it down to the usual growing pains of a newborn industry, albeit one under a massive microscope. And the Washington Post’s “climate zeitgeist reporter” Shannon Osaka posited that human psychology is simply too stubborn to fall for meat made from plants.
But all three writers, along with many others, point to one glaring, common crux: consumers finally figured out that burgers made of beans or peas have to be processed in order to meet the meaty mark.
It was as if after those initial few years of enjoying eco- and animal-friendly plant-based burgers, sausages and tenders, conscious consumers suddenly turned the packaging around and read the ingredients. There they discovered the now notorious “long list” of scary components like refined coconut oil, potato starch and sunflower lectin. And that was it for some — back to beef. It was almost as if the meat industry orchestrated the whole thing itself.
No, consumers did not just collectively come upon the realization that plant-based meats are processed. The seed for that messaging was planted early on, thanks in-part to full page ads in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, claiming “fake meats” are full of “real chemicals,” and a TV ad broadcasted to select markets during the 2020 Super Bowl.
The $5 million commercial features a young girl in a spelling bee asked to spell “methylcellulose.” When she requests a definition, the girl is told it is a “chemical laxative” also used in “synthetic meat.” “Fake bacon and burgers can have dozens of chemical ingredients,” claims the commercial’s narrator. “If you can’t spell it or pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.” Viewers are then asked to visit CleanFoodFacts.com, a site run by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF).
The term “ultra-processed” has become a sort of dog whistle used by the meat industry to elicit suspicion of plant-based alternatives. “It is an emotive term used to symbolize highly processed products,” Unilever’s Future Health and Wellness Director Amelia Jarman said at an industry event last year. Unilever makes a large range of plant-based products, citing it as part of its sustainability goals. “The label ultra-processed is a general term with no real classification,” added Jarman. “As a nutrition scientist I have one view…Processing per se isn’t bad. What is bad is food that has no nutritional value.” (Or, in the case of red meat, food that raises your risk of several chronic diseases.)
Methylcellulose is a compound derived from plant fibers that is used to bind or thicken all kinds of foods, like bread, cake, ice cream and chocolate. It’s not scary, but the CCF is paid to convince you that it is. For the Guardian, Jessica Glenza wrote that CCF’s executive director, former tobacco lobbyist Richard Berman, is the man who “wants to convince America beef is healthier than meatless burgers.” She described him as the food industry’s “weapon of mass destruction,” who has “waged campaigns against animal welfare groups, labor unions and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
CCF does not publicize its client/donor list, though the organization states on its website that it is supported by “restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers,” claiming to simply advocate for an individual’s right to choose what they eat. Forbes described it as a front group for meat, tobacco and alcohol companies. A spokesperson for Impossible Foods described it as a “dark-money front group funded by Big Beef to mislead consumers and push propaganda.”
Thus, we cannot bestow the title of plant-meat pillager exclusively upon Berman. He is one part of a massive movement, backed by billions of dollars, to keep animal meat on our tables and plant-based meat back in the fads of the pandemic.
In this effort, well-funded lobby groups, including The North American Meat Institute and US Cattlemen’s Association, have in recent years targeted public policy and labeling laws to keep plant-based products at bay. Major meat companies have even funded campaigns of politicians who support such laws, and who support animal agriculture.
Protein has become politicized, with plant-based meat now prodded into an all-out culture war. And in this battle of animal versus plant meat, the pea- and bean-based versions are positioned as the food of the Left (even part of a Bill Gates globalist conspiracy).
For The New Republic, Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N. Rosenberg discuss the “insipid but dangerous battlefield that meat now represents in America’s perpetual culture war. From right-wing trolls’ disparaging references to effeminate left-wing ‘soy-boys,’ to the stomach-churning embrace of hypermasculine ‘carnivore’ diets, it’s clear conservatives’ darker fantasies aren’t just about threats to a dietary staple but about threats to the liberty, bodily integrity, and masculinity of American men.”
In other words, plant-based meat is not a mere menu option for those looking to cut their eco impact, animal harm and cholesterol: it’s an affront to North American patriarchy. (Note, pioneering animal rights advocate and scholar Carol J. Adams has been calling this out for decades.)
As the tide of plant-based fandom continues to ebb and flow, just know that this is no natural rhythm. There is a man behind the curtain, many in fact, directing you and the media to that ingredients label, that website, and that full page ad telling the tale of all the processing required to turn peas into meat. It is a heavy marketing tactic, used to keep consumers from coming upon the meat industry’s own bloody secret: that there’s a process required to turn animals into meat, too. And it’s much worse.
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