MADISON — Legislators on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions met Oct. 24 for a public hearing on three bills that aim to create food labeling laws to support Wisconsin’s agriculture economy and alleviate consumer confusion in a world of ever-emerging plant-based and cell created alternative food products.

The Truth in Food Labeling legislation, co-authored by State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and State Reps. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Loren Oldenburg, R-Viroqua, includes SB 466, referring to milk labeling; SB 464, referring to meat labeling; and SB 463, referring to dairy product labeling. If the legislation passes, plant-based “milks” would need to be labeled as a “drink” or “beverage” and companies producing plant-based “meat” alternatives and cell culture “meat” would be barred from using words such as “meat, burger, sausage, chicken, wing or bacon” to describe and market their products.

Similar legislation for meat alternatives is now law in 11 states and has been introduced in about a dozen others, including neighboring Iowa and Illinois, Marklein said. Milk labeling laws have been passed in two states in the past two years, and if Wisconsin passes a dairy labeling law, it could become the first state to do so.

Marklein, who represents one of the most agriculturally dependent districts in the state, said he introduced the legislation in response to a recent study initiated by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. In the study, consumers were surveyed to determine if they know the difference between real cheese and imitation cheese, and according to Marklein, results showed that 48% of those surveyed did not know the difference after tasting dairy cheese and a cheese alternative.

“It is concerning that many consumers don’t know the difference between which products contain milk and which products do not,” he said. “I want consumers to know what they’re buying and eating, and I want consumers to know the difference between the real nutritious products grown and made by farmers vs. the fake lab grown plant-based products that are passing for milk, meat, cheese, ice cream and other dairy products in our state.”

“The consumer and the market’s going to do what the consumer and the market wants to do, but I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that they make the choice with all of the proper information in front of them that they can have,” Tranel said.

Marklein, Tranel and Oldenburg also hope these bills will put pressure on the federal government to take action on existing food labeling regulations that they believe aren’t being enforced. If Wisconsin passes this legislation, it will be a clear message to Washington that Truth in Food Labeling legislation is important to the state, which relies heavily on agriculture in its economy.

All three bills have broad support from Wisconsin agricultural groups, including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and Wisconsin Pork Producers Association. Several people affiliated with those organizations spoke in support of these three bills at the hearing, including Andrea Brossard, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation; John Umhoefer and Dave Buholzer, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association; Allen Reis, Wisconsin Pork Producers Association; Brad Legreid, Wisconsin Dairy Products Association; Tom Crave and John Holevoet, Wisconsin Dairy Business Association; and Matt Ludlow, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association.

“As a dairy farmer, I stand behind the high quality, nutritious product that we produce on our farm,” said Brossard, a third generation dairy farmer who also serves on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation board of directors. “The dairy industry has built a solid foundation on the value of the word ‘milk’ (and) ultimately, we are misleading consumers and damaging the integrity of an already struggling dairy industry by labeling nut and plant-based food products as milk.”

Umhoefer provided perspective from the cheese makers, who argue that consumers are confused when companies use terms like “cheddar” and “mozzarella” to describe their plant-based products, which contain no dairy. He also argued that these cheese mimics have little to none of the nutrients of dairy cheese — which can add an extra layer of confusion for the consumer.

“The makers of these products are benefiting on the good name and reputation of the dairy farmers of the state of Wisconsin and all over the country,” Ken Heimen, co-owner of Masonville Dairy of Marshfield, testified. “I think it’s absolutely essential that Wisconsin take the lead on this.”

Umhoefer agreed that it is great to see Wisconsin act on this issue.

On the meat side of labeling, Allen Reis, a hog farmer from Lomira and past president of the Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, said he doesn’t have an issue with meat imitations — as long as consumers are aware of what they are purchasing.

“Clear meat labeling standards are important to Wisconsin’s pork industry,” he said, adding that all consumers should be able to easily identify what they buy and shouldn’t be confused if a product is pork, a meat substitute or plant-based.

“Meat, as we know it, has many attributes other than just taste, texture and appearance,” Bob Uphoff, a hog farmer south of Madison, added. “It has a very natural, nutritious profile and I think that is very key as we look down the road here.”

Just as these companies have moved to protect the technology used to create these products, Wisconsin livestock farmers should be able to protect their livelihood too, Uphoff said.

Dan Colegrove, speaking on behalf of the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade organization that represents 160 companies in the milk and meat alternative space, said his association has already began recommending its member companies use “qualifying terms” such as non-dairy and plant-based to make it as clear as possible on their labeling what they are and what they are not.

“We don’t believe consumers are being deceived,” he said. “There should be no confusion.”

He said all of the proposed bills are problematic and supports a federal level solution where all parties can be involved in the discussion.

Others who spoke in opposition argue that the proposed legislation is unnecessary, unconstitutional and bad for businesses and consumers in Wisconsin. Scott Weathers, representing The Good Food Institute, spoke about several states that are currently in litigation over the passage of labeling laws, citing that they restrict commercial speech and censor competitors in this space.

Tyler Jameson, director of government relations at Impossible Foods, agreed with Weathers, stating that if the laws were enacted, the company wouldn’t accurately be able to describe its product, a “meat” alternative. In fact, he argued that the laws would increase consumer confusion if passed.