- Plant-based food company Upton's Naturals and the Plant Based Foods Association took their case to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after an Oklahoma judge declined to put a hold on a state law requiring plant-based meat products to have a plant-based claim on their products that is the same size as the brand name.
- Last month, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled that Upton's Naturals product packaging — all of which has the term "vegan" on the label — is misleading to the average consumer. Friot wrote in his Nov. 19 ruling that a hurried shopper may not scrutinize the packaging before purchasing, and because the label has traditional meat terminology, that consumer could easily be deceived.
- Several states have passed laws dealing with the labeling of plant-based meat products, with proponents saying consumers may be confused. Court cases seeking to overturn those laws are currently pending in Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana, and a lawsuit in Mississippi was voluntarily dismissed because labeling regulations were revised. This decision in the Oklahoma case is the first time a judge has agreed with the intent of the labeling law and said that labels on plant-based products were indeed confusing.
Judge Friot's ruling puts a rather blunt end to the winning streak that plant-based food companies and their supporters have seen in the courts.
"The court has no trouble finding that the speech at issue is potentially misleading," the opinion states. "Product packaging which labels a product as 'Classic Burger,' bacon, chorizo, hot dog, jerky, meatballs, or steak, when the product is actually a plant-based product, is potentially misleading to a reasonable consumer."
Other courts have found differently, and most granted temporary injunctions against enforcing the law while the case worked its way through the judicial system. (Missouri did not because the judge in that case ruled the language already on plant-based product packaging was permitted under the law and not misleading.) In fact, a footnote in Friot's opinion states that he "respectfully disagrees" with the judge in Arkansas, who, when she granted a motion to put enforcement of the law on pause, said it was likely the plant-based labeling language used by plaintiff Tofurky would not ultimately be found to be misleading.
Upton's Naturals, which makes vegan versions of products including chicken, sausages, pulled pork, fish, bacon macaroni and cheese and soup, filed this lawsuit in September. The company, joined by the Plant Based Foods Association, argued the state's requirement to make plant-based disclaimers the same size as the product name was overly burdensome and without reason — other than to protect the state's meat industry. The lawsuit argues that the labeling requirement violates plant-based meat companies' First Amendment rights, and a separate labeling requirement for Oklahoma makes it difficult for a national company to sell its products in that state.
While plant-based food companies have said consumers aren't confused by their labels, there have been some studies that suggest differently. A study from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association found that 55% of consumers thought products labeled "plant-based" could contain meat or animal byproducts. And about six in 10 thought from looking at labels that plant-based meat products from Beyond Meat and Lightlife contained meat.
While the terms "vegan" and "plant-based" aren't necessarily interchangeable, they convey the same claim on most food product labels. "Plant-based" is the current preferred term among consumers, and the ruling seems to imply that consumers may not understand that a "vegan" label claim essentially means the same thing. Studies have shown that could be the case. Just under a third of consumers last year said that a plant-based diet was vegan, according to a report from the International Food Information Council.
Plant Based Foods Association Founder and Vice President of Policy Michele Simon said in an email that the group will continue to fight for its members.
"We are confident that we have the facts, and the law, on our side,” she said.
The opinion in the Oklahoma case is far from the final ruling on the issue as a whole. The decision on the injunction has been appealed, and the full case still has a long way to go before it is actually decided. In fact, none of the litigation on these labeling laws has come close to fully working its way through the system. While each case involves an individual state law, they are all filed in federal courts and make similar arguments based on U.S. law. Whenever one of these cases does get to the point where a final ruling is made, it could set a precedent on whether these laws are indeed permissible or fair — and potentially put an end to litigation about state-specific labeling laws.