- The Arkansas state law prohibiting plant-based meat companies from using meat terminology on their product labels and marketing is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled late last month.
- The state cannot enforce the law, which has been on the books since 2019, and had been on pause while courts considered this lawsuit from Tofurky, the Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.
- This is one of several state labeling laws regarding plant-based meat that has been challenged in court. A lawsuit in Mississippi got the state to change its labeling regulations. Tofurky is the lead plaintiff in pending lawsuits in Oklahoma, Missouri and a Louisiana case that the state has appealed.
This judge’s ruling continues a trend: restrictive labeling laws meeting their demise in the courtroom. When these laws — ostensibly crafted to avoid consumer confusion — have been challenged, so far, judges have found they infringed on First Amendment rights.
In her ruling, District Judge Kristine Baker found that Tofurky clearly indicated its products were plant-based. The company was not intending to be deceptive by using terminology like “burger,” “chorizo” and “hot dog” on its labels, and the terms actually served a purpose.
“The labels’ use of the words ... permits Tofurky to convey meaningful, helpful information to consumers about the products they are purchasing, and Tofurky’s repeated indications that the food products contained in these packages contain no animal-based meat dispel consumer confusion,” the ruling states.
And in its arguments and evidence, the state produced no proof that consumers were confused about Tofurky’s products.
In a written statement, Tofurky CEO and President Jaime Athos said the ruling shows consumers are buying plant-based products because that’s what they want, not because they are confused.
“Consumers choose plant-based because of their values, nutritional or taste preferences and concerns about the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment,” Athos said in the statement. “The passage of this law was never about helping consumers, it was a naked attempt by the state legislature to interfere in the marketplace and limit competition against animal agriculture interests.”
The state law in Arkansas was not only controversial for its prohibitions — manufacturers could not use any terminology that was commonly associated with meat unless it came from harvested or domesticated animals — but also its punishment — a penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation. While violations of the law could be extremely costly to a plant-based meat company, Tofurky argued that following it would also be financially prohibitive. Because of the nature of food distribution and consumers freely moving from state to state, Tofurky would either have to change all of its packaging and marketing nationwide, or stop distributing its products anywhere near Arkansas.
Similar legal challenges are playing out in Oklahoma and Missouri, both of which passed state laws making some prohibitions on labeling of plant-based products. Missouri’s law was the first in the country that would limit plant-based meat labeling, and it was challenged in 2018 by the same plaintiffs in the Arkansas case. It is still pending, though courts have failed to put enforcement of the law on hold.
The Oklahoma law, which requires a plant-based claim to be on food packages that is the same size and prominence as the product name, was first challenged by Upton’s Naturals in 2020. Tofurky took over as the lead plaintiff and with a new strategy last year.
There have been victories for plant-based companies in these fights. A federal judge in Louisiana found earlier this year that a state law prohibiting meat terminology on products not from animal carcasses is unconstitutional. The state has appealed the ruling. A federal judge ruled last year that California could not prohibit plant-based cheese and butter maker Miyoko’s Creamery from using common dairy terms on its products because there was no proof of consumer confusion. And a 2019 lawsuit challenging a Mississippi labeling law was voluntarily dismissed after the law was revised to only require that plant-based foods are labeled as such.
Amanda Priest, communications director for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said in an email the office is reviewing the decision to determine the next step.