WASHINGTON — A new federal bill introduced to Congress would require all plant-based and cultured beef products to be labeled as “imitation.” The Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act of 2019, also known as the Real MEAT Act, was co-sponsored by representatives Anthony Brindsi, a Democrat from New York, and Roger Marshall, a Republican from Kansas.

The use of meat or meat-derived terms on alternative proteins is a contentious issue. So far, the battle over food identity standards has taken place on the state level. Similar proposals already have appeared in more than half of the country’s state legislatures. They have been enacted in several states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi. Most are being challenged in court.

Many meat processors argue that using terms like “beef” or “burger” to label alternative protein products is misleading and confusing to consumers. The bill claims that the lack of a federal definition for beef has “led some to begin marketing imitation products as meat or beef, creating the opportunity for marketplace confusion and consumer fraud.”

Others, such as the Good Food Institute, are defending the practice on free speech grounds. Plant-based companies say there is no confusion among consumers, who tend to seek out plant-based products because of their ingredient lists. Proposals such as the Real MEAT Act, they claim, are intended to prevent plant-based alternatives from cutting into conventional meat sales.

Dairy processors are waging a similar battle against makers of plant-based dairy alternatives. Dean Foods recently dropped its International Dairy Foods Association membership over the trade group’s unwillingness to oppose labeling plant-based products with dairy terms.

“We believe it is wrong that many plant-based products are currently marketed using milk’s good name yet are lacking several of the inherent nutrients of their dairy counterparts,” the company said.

A recent study commissioned by the International Food Information Council found that about 75 percent of consumers know plant-based milk alternatives do not contain cow’s milk. While the US Dept. of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have yet to make a final call on the labeling issues, the FDA has asked for public comment. Seventy-five percent of responses were in favor of using dairy terms on plant-based products.

Jessica Almy, director of policy at the Good Food Institute, laid out the case against stricter food identity standards at the Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum earlier this month.

“I don’t think consumers are confused when they’re buying almond milk or they’re buying a veggie burger,” she said. “To ask the government to come in and to censor the competition really is unfair, and moreover, misleading labels are already prohibited by federal law.”

Sales of plant-based meat alternatives grew 10 percent last year, reaching more than $800 million, according to data from the Good Food Institute. Plant-based now accounts for approximately 2 percent of all retail packaged meat sales.