Right now someone in Mississippi typing on the keyboard an announcement about the church cookout is being forced to take a controversial stand. Does the church follow the new state law or continue to serve “veggie burgers”?
How many churches will have the courage to throw a shroom burger on the grill? How many congregations will be torn apart by this divisive issue?
Mississippi lawmakers recently ended their long, statewide nightmare by banning the marketing of “veggie burgers.” They say the law will put an end to the unfortunate incidents that have ruined the lives of carnivorous consumers who have accidentally tasted tofu. Their argument centers on the thought-provoking question: Why do the makers of these “burgers” become vegan if the first thing they do is make them look and taste like meat?
Lawsuits from vegetarian-friendly groups are trying to overturn the restrictions on the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. The lawsuit denounces “meat label censorship” and claims, “The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed.”
It is no longer enough for a label to say “100% vegan.” The law, which was passed in March and took effect on July 1, protects meat products (like hamburgers) from being mistaken for plant-based alternatives (like veggie burgers) by barring the use of the term “burger” to refer to veggie burgers. Perpetrators can go to prison – taken away in a patty wagon – for printing the words “veggie burger.”
Prisoner 1: “I robbed a bank. What are you in for?”
Carl Jr.: “I called a burger a Veg-It Thickburger.”
You might wonder if this is a real problem. Is the phrase “veggie burger” unclear? Haven’t we been calling them veggie, vegan and tofu burgers for decades?
Are people going to grocery stores, picking up veggie burgers without reading the label, throwing them on the grill, and biting into them before realizing they are eating vegan fare? God forbid a Mississippi resident should unwittingly taste a plant-based burger thinking they are eating highly processed meat filled with cancer causing nitrates. No one wants to be tricked into a healthier option.
This is complicated. What happens when food scientists come up with cell-based meat products which are identical to meat from animals but grown from stem cells in a factory? Will Jon Hamm and Kevin Bacon have to change their names? Did they consider going further and saying the term “burger” can only be applied to a grilled patty sandwich made in the traditional method within the Hamburg region of Germany? What about calling it a “plantwich” or “planturger”? Or, as a nod to presidential spelling, “hamberder”?
Do people who buy a burger labeled “veggie burger” thinking it comes from a cow have a right to feel misled? Are reasonable consumers deceived by “meatless steaks” and “vegan jerky?” This law raises difficult questions for legislators concerned that hamburgers are not ham, hot dogs are not dogs, circus peanuts are not peanuts, Buffalo wings are not buffalo, and refried beans are not fried twice. What about almond milk?
A cynical person might think the meat industry wants to stifle competition. The Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, which pushed for the new law, seems to have more political influence than vegans in Mississippi. The state is run by the party of small government, but being a vegetarian is as un-American as reducing gun violence.
Churches afraid to bite into the veggie burger issue could divert attention by pointing out a long list of problems bigger than lentil burgers that Mississippi lawmakers might have addressed. The state is ranked near the bottom in terms of poverty, high school graduation rates, infant mortality, racial conflict and obesity (which makes the new law ironic as well as silly). Arguing over what to call a plant-based burger should not be a legislative priority.
The church should see this as an opportunity to be courageous. Christians could protect the marginalized by defending “meatless meatballs,” “vegan bacon” and “beefless burgers.” How amazing would it be if Mississippi prisons were overrun with church people who put “veggie burgers” on the Wednesday night supper menu? How surprising would it be if a church put “Vegetarians are welcome” on the marquee?
Or maybe this story is a total nothingburger. Can I say that?