A Super Bowl ad you probably missed — it only aired in the Washington, D.C., market — shows that the war between powerful food-industry interests and alternative protein companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is being taken to a new level.
The Center for Consumer Freedom ran a Super Bowl commercial alleging that plant-based meat alternatives are not as healthy as consumers think. The group describes itself as a nonprofit "devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices" and is funded by food industry players "from farm to fork."
But there's more to it. The Center for Consumer Freedom's CEO, Richard Berman, is a well-known lobbyist who was once profiled by "60 Minutes" for his role antagonizing activist groups on behalf of industries like Big Tobacco. He also runs his own public relations firm, Berman and Co. — one of its listed services being "creative advertising."
The organization run by Berman, across multiple platforms, has lashed out at "synthetic meat" in recent months, stating that their claims of being healthier than animal products are unfounded. In November the Center for Consumer Freedom took out a full-page ad in The New York Post criticizing plant-based meat; in December it advertised in the Chicago Tribune.
The Super Bowl ad was the first television spot from Berman's operation targeting alternative protein companies.
In the commercial, a spelling bee contestant is asked to spell the word "methylcellulose," which the judge defines as "a chemical laxative that is also used in synthetic meat."
Methylcellulose, a tasteless powder widely used as a food additive and as a thickener in cosmetic products, is listed on the ingredient labels of plant-based meat products made by both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. A 2018 post by Mayo Clinic said there is no evidence that using fiber supplements like methylcellulose is harmful.
Impossible Foods retaliated by releasing its own parody of the advertisement: a spelling bee contestant being tasked by the judge, played by Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown, to spell the word "poop," saying, "There's poop in the ground beef we make from cows."
A voice-over then quotes a 2015 Consumer Reports study that found fecal bacteria in 300 ground beef samples.
A spokeswoman for Impossible Foods said in a statement to CNBC that the original commercial is part of a "disingenuous, misleading and shameless disinformation campaign."
"Impossible Foods does not tolerate Big Beef's bull," the statement said.
A spokeswoman for Beyond Meat said in a statement to CNBC that they were not surprised by the meat industry spreading "misleading information that confuses consumers."
"Beyond Meat distinguishes itself by offering products made with simple, plant-based ingredients — without GMOs or artificially produced ingredients," it said in a statement to CNBC. "We stand behind our products and remain committed to continuing to improve human health, which is integral to our company."
The Center for Consumer Freedom also hosts a website, which was recently rebranded from CleanFoodFacts.com, railing the alternative protein industry's manufacturing methods. Other projects headed by the Center for Consumer Freedom include PETAKillsAnimals.com, ObesityMyths.com and Humanewatch.com. The Center for Union Facts, another Berman-affiliated advocacy group, hosts AFTFacts.com, a campaign against the labor union American Federation of Teachers.
As alternative meat popularity has grown, companies have been called out by the meat industry and health advocates for their manufacturing processes, which some argue are highly processed. Plant-based patties are a blend of soy, rice or pea proteins with vitamins and binders added to mimic the taste and texture of real meat.
A former head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told CNBC last year that fake meat's health claims were unverifiable due to a "lack of nutrition science."
The U.S. Cattlemen's Association filed a 15-page petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year, calling for an official definition for the term "beef" and, more broadly, "meat."
A spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom said in a statement to CNBC that it believes synthetic meat is the opposite of clean eating.
"We must be doing something right if our ad prompted Impossible Foods to desperately rush to make a video response," the statement said. "It seems as though they are just flinging poop at the wall to see what distracts consumers from the ultra-processed nature of their products."
Berman himself claimed a sort of victory in the fact that Impossible Foods chose to respond, telling CNBC, "The fact that we're getting pushback means that these companies — or at least in this case, Brown — pretty much violated the first rule of public relations, which is to say: 'Don't push back on a story that's going to make the story even bigger,' which of course it's now done."
"I am not focused on any one particular product as much as I'm focused on the [alternative meat] category," he said.
While outspoken about its ties to the food industry, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit said it does not disclose individual donors. "Our donors would be harassed (or worse) by activists who don't like our message," the group said in its statement.
The Center for Media and Democracy lists dozens of companies it claims has worked with or donated to the group according to documents it received from a whistleblower. The list includes Burger King and Tyson Foods, who have both recently invested in plant-based meat alternatives. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
Berman told CNBC that no public list of donors is accurate and that the whistleblower was a "disgruntled employee who guessed at the names."
The Center for Media and Democracy said in a statement to CNBC that although it does not have current research on Berman's latest campaign, it has found that his other projects receive funding from conservative organizations Donors Trust and Bradley Foundation.
"Rick 'Dr. Evil' Berman is calling a former employee 'disgruntled?' Shocker!" the statement said. "Berman is a master PR spinster."
Some of the largest fast-food chains and food conglomerates are embracing alternative proteins as they look for ways to increase store foot traffic and new growth markets.
Fast-food companies investing in fake meat include Yum! Brands' KFC, which is testing the waters with its Beyond Chicken; Restaurant Brands' Burger King, seller of the Impossible Whopper; privately-held White Castle, which was among the first to market with its Impossible Sliders; Dunkin' Brands, offering a Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich; McDonald's, which is expanding its testing of the Beyond Burger in Canada; and Qdoba, which serves Impossible Meat. Starbucks also recently indicated it will be adding more plant-based menu items.
Kellogg's has launched its own plant-based protein brand, called Incogmeato, under its existing vegetarian line, MorningStar Farms. Nestlé is bringing out its plant-based Awesome Burger for the U.S. market as part of its existing Sweet Earth vegetarian brand.
The menu additions have created excitement, though long-term success remains difficult to predict. Restaurant Brands' Tim Hortons recently said it would pull Beyond Meat products from some Canadian markets, while Burger King lowered the price of its Impossible Whopper. It has also faced recent criticism and legal action related to the vegan burgers being grilled alongside meat burgers.
Dean Foods, the largest dairy producer in the United States, which recently filed for bankruptcy, said in a statement to CNBC that it supports the Center for Consumer Freedom's claim that consumers are being "misled" into believing that plant-based products are as healthy as their animal counterparts, but it said that it does not currently donate to or work with the group.
Perdue Farms, a major chicken-, turkey- and pork-processing company, said it has not recently contributed to the center. Cargill, one of the largest private food companies in the world, said it has no affiliation with Berman's group.
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Correction: The Center for Union Facts hosts AFTFacts.com.