The New York Times Reports on “Beyond Meat” and the Problem With Miranda Warnings by Sherry F. Colb

First, the good news. The New York Times ran a prominent story about the company “Beyond Meat,” and the story highlighted the fact that the flavor and texture of the company’s plant-based chicken strips are indistinguishable from the taste of the charred flesh of an actual slaughtered bird.

This is progress. So what’s the bad news? The bad news is that the person tasked with writing the story is plainly neither vegan nor favorably inclined towards veganism,, and she therefore presents the story in a way that treats “real” chicken as the gold standard. And by “real” chicken, I mean the actual muscle tissue of what was once a living and breathing animal before she or he was slaughtered at the age of seven weeks old, at which time birds still make the “cheep cheep” sound of baby chicks, because they are, in fact baby chicks.

How do I know that the reporter is neither vegan nor even apparently open to veganism and the many compelling reasons for it?

First, she says nothing in the article about the fact that “Beyond Meat” is a vegan company or the fact that its chicken-free strips are vegan — they contain no animal ingredients, as opposed to “vegetarian” (which, in today’s usage, typically refers to “lacto-ovo vegetarian,” a word that actually means “animal-free except for the ovulatory and lacteal secretions that it contains”). Indeed, most strangely for an article describing a vegan item, the article nowhere even uses the word “vegan.” It is difficult to know whether the reporter has simply never heard of veganism or whether she prefers not to use the word, for some reason, but either way, it is misleading to speak about a vegan company like Beyond Meat and a nonvegan company like Morningstar Farms as though they are relevantly equivalent.

Second, the story begins with a plainly slanted account of a mix-up in some Whole Foods stores. Some of the retailer’s kitchens had accidentally reversed the labeling of its two curried chicken salads, one of which had “real” and one of which contained “fake” chicken. As a result, customers would have been led by the labels into purchasing the wrong item. Does the reporter note that customers seeking to avoid animal flesh might have been upset to learn that they had consumed a bird’s corpse due to the erroneous labeling? No. The article completely ignores this problem and mentions only the plight of people with allergies mistakenly consuming the vegetarian chicken salad. 

Third, the reporter not only calls the vegan strips “fake” meat but defends her choice to do so in the following way: “[p]roducers hate the term [“fake” meat] but have not come up with a catchy alternative to ‘plant-based protein,'” adding that prior to such convincing “fake” meats, “desiccated and flavorless veggie burgers were virtually the only option for noncarnivores.” Note again the invisibility of vegans in this account — there are carnivores and noncarnivores, and virtually the “only option” for people who refrained from slaughterhouse-sourced foods were disgusting veggie burgers (rather than, say, delicious fruits, vegetables, nuts, breads, pasta, rice, and greens, accented with plentiful herbs and spices).

I’m not sure what enables the reporter to decide what qualifies as a catchy name, but I know of no vegans who believe that “fake meat” meets the “catchiness” test. Many of us refer to vegan meat (also known as “plant-based meat”) as animal-free meat, slaughter-free meat, nut-based meat, grain meat, etc. And none of these foods is “fake.” All are made out of real ingredients that happen to come from the plant kingdom (which requires no use of slaughterhouses) rather than from the animal kingdom.

If one were truly going to be exposing fraud in the use of language, we might point to the peaceful pretense in packages of animal parts called “chicken,” which give no hint of the violence behind the packaging. We could note that saying “chicken,” implies some undifferentiated substance from which we may partake, rather than “chickens,” a term that highlights the fact that we are consuming the body parts of individual animals whose lives mattered to them and were taken from them when they were babies. 

Incidentally, the word “meat” originally referred to the edible part of something (rather than its shell), which is why we can coherently speak of “coconut meat.” We can therefore honestly call vegan meats what they are — real food made without using a slaughterhouse.

Fourth, the reporter seems to have little sense of what motivates an increasing number of consumers to become vegan and thus to choose to consume only animal-free, vegan products. She states that “[d]emand for meat alternatives is growing, fueled by trends as varied as increased vegetarianism and concerns over the impact of industrial-scale animal husbandry on the environment.” To attribute the demand for animal-free products to vegetarianism, however, is, uninformative — it says that people are demanding animal free products because there is a trend in people consuming animal-free products. She then refers to concerns about the impact of industrial-scale animal agriculture on the environment, while ignoring that the environmental impact of animal agriculture is not specific to factory farming but is true of all animal agriculture.

Later in the article, quoting someone talking about why younger people are consuming vegan products, the reporter says that “‘younger consumers … seek foods that fit an overall lifestyle, be it for health reasons or personal ethics.'” The phrase “personal ethics” implies that the vegan movement for non-violence is just a personal matter. I like nonviolence, but you prefer violence, and both preferences are equally valid. But ethical vegans take the position that the violence against animals solicited by consumers who purchase animal ingredients is unjust and wrong, not just “wrong for me,” but wrong, period. Similarly, sex discrimination is not just illegal and opposed to my “personal ethics” but immoral. People who ordinarily believe in right and wrong seem to become moral relativists only when faced with the prospect of changing the way they eat.

I promised in the title to talk about Miranda warnings, and I shall do so now. People have long puzzled over why suspects in custody who hear the Miranda warnings so frequently give up their right to remain silent and ultimately tell the police self-incriminating information. One theory is that the suspect is not really “free” to remain silent, but while this may play a role in the decision to speak, I think the answer may be far simpler. As Yale Kamisar has explained, when the person telling you that you have the right to remain silent is someone with a vested interest in your giving up that right to remain silent, then he or she will manage — in delivering the message — to make silence sound undesirable and unnecessary, much like the ads for medications that quietly and with soothing background music “warn” the viewer or listener about potentially fatal side-effects associated with the medication, do.

This is ultimately what is wrong with having someone who is neither vegan nor even open to veganism write a story about a delicious new vegan meat. She will (and does) make it sound undesirable, fake, and inexplicable, when it is anything but.

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University School of Law. She earned an A.B. from Columbia College (Valedictorian) and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (magna cum laude) and clerked for Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun of the United States Supreme Court. Her research and teaching interests center on issues of constitutional criminal procedure (especially the Fourth Amendment), animal rights, sexual equality, and evidence. She composes a bi-weekly column on as well as regular posts on the blog, Dorf on Law. Her recently published book about veganism and animal rights is entitled “Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?” and Other Questions People Ask Vegans (Lantern 2013).