“Why 'fake' meat isn't,”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan 13, 2020
“Only in recent decades have we come to associate the word ‘meat’ exclusively with the flesh of animals. The word derives from the Old English mete, for food, nourishment or sustenance.”
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Why 'fake' meat isn't
By John Sanbonmatsu, PhD
Is it fraud to sell “veggie burgers,” “chickenless nuggets” or “tofu dogs”? What about to call a beverage made from soy beans “soy milk”?
According to the meat and dairy lobbies, it is. Alarmed by declining sales of dairy and beef and by growing interest in veganism, agribusiness has been pushing legislation to outlaw the use of “meaty” and “milky” words in the marketing of plant-based foods. Last year, Missouri enacted a “real meat” law, making it illegal to sell plant-based products using meat-like words. Louisiana and Mississippi passed virtually identical bills last summer, and similar legislation is pending in half of the nation’s states.
Backers of the new bills claim that referring to plant-based foods as “meat” or “milk” is unprecedented, and therefore deceptive. However, it is they who are deceiving the public — by ignoring a thousand years of past English usage.
Only in recent decades, in fact, have we come to associate the word “meat” exclusively with the flesh of animals. The word derives from the Old English mete, for food, nourishment or sustenance. As late as the 1970s, the Oxford English Dictionary still gave the primary definition of meat as “food in general: anything used as nourishment for man or animals; usually solid food, in contradistinction to drink.” Meat was therefore synonymous with “meal, repast, or feast.”
Once common, now archaic terms listed in that dictionary include “meat-giver” (one who provides food), “meat-while” (“the time of taking food, meal-time”), and even “meat-lust” (signifying not an erotic attachment to bacon, but merely “an appetite for food”). Even “meatless” (a word we now associate only with vegetarianism) for centuries merely meant to be “without food.”
Potatoes, too, were considered meat, as were “crumbled bread and oatmeal.” A child sent to “collect meat for the cattle” would have been asked to gather provender, not carcasses. “Green-meat,” as it was termed, referred to any “grass or green vegetables used for food or fodder,” whether consumed by humans or domesticated animals. Similar usages of plant meat remained common into the early 20th century.
“Meat” has also long been used in its more restrictive sense, to refer to animal flesh. But again, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was more common for “meat” to refer to “the edible parts of fruit, nuts, eggs, etc.; the pulp, kernel, yoke, and white, etc., in contradistinction to the rind, peel, or shell.” Hence the still common expression, “getting to the meat of the matter.”
Why this broader usage? Because for most of human existence, flesh has played only a supporting role in the human diet. Vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes have oftentimes provided the bulk of our nourishment. It was bread that our ancestors called “the staff of life,” not chicken or pork.
A similar falsification of the history of English usage is now occurring too with “fake milk” bills. In April, the Louisiana Legislature, under urging by the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, passed a bill making it illegal to sell as “milk” anything that doesn’t come from a “hooved mammal.”
The Food and Drug Association proposes that milk be defined as the “lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Chris Galen, vice president of the National Milk Producers Federation, has similarly stated: “You don’t got milk if it comes from a nut or a seed or a grain or a weed.”
In fact, referring to the secretions of nuts, seeds and grains as “milk” has been common since at least the 15th century. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “the milk of cocoa nuts,” the milk of figs, and the “milks of wild-poppies, garden-poppies, dandelions, hawk-weed, and sow-thistle.” “Milk” need not even refer to a foodstuff. At your local pharmacy you’ll still find a suspension of magnesium hydroxide used for upset stomachs, called Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia. (And where would we be without “the milk of human kindness”?)
If we have forgotten these once-common usages, it is only because the animal industry wants us to believe that only foods derived from animals can be truly nourishing. Amid growing public awareness of the ecological and ethical problems associated with raising and killing billions of animals for food, the industry now hopes to obliterate the last cultural traces of these earlier meanings, wiping clean our collective memory. But we should be allowed to have our plant meats and milks — and eat and drink them, too.
John Sanbonmatu is associate professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is curator of the CleanMeat-Hoax.com website.