- Upton's Naturals Co. and the Plant Based Foods Association are suing the state of Oklahoma, claiming that a new law — which requires manufacturers to place a qualifying plant-based claim on labels that is the same size as the brand’s name — violates the First Amendment rights of vegan and vegetarian producers.
- The plaintiffs argue that no state besides Oklahoma requires that labels for plant-based foods have disclaimers "uniform in size and prominence" to the product name. These labeling requirements were passed during Oklahoma's 2020 legislative session as House Bill 3806, which was lobbied for by the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, the Oklahoma Pork Council and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The new law is set to go into effect Nov. 1.
- This isn't the first time these organizations have teamed up to file a lawsuit against state labeling laws. The Plant Based Foods Association and Upton's Naturals sued Mississippi last year and later dropped their federal lawsuit after the state revised its labeling regulations.
As plant-based alternatives become increasingly popular, private companies and state governments have been at odds for several years now over the use of terms like "meat" on plant-based products. In response to the proliferation of products across the nation that are catering to consumers looking for alternatives to animal protein, states, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, have enacted laws similar to the one in Oklahoma.
But plant-based companies are fighting back. Last year, Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Arkansas, the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued Arkansas and Missouri over labeling requirements. In Arkansas, the judge granted a preliminary injunction, meaning the law cannot be enforced, in December. The Missouri lawsuit is still pending, though in December judges ruled against granting an injunction and pausing enforcement of the law as it continues.
This latest case against a state government differs from previous complaints filed because of the size requirement worked into the mandate. This stipulation would require companies to redesign their labels specifically to suit the regulations in Oklahoma, which requires a substantial amount of time and money in order to ensure compliance for a single state.
While there have been some wins for plant-based producers that have taken the government to court, there is still a long way to go for plant-based producers to prevail. The battle for labeling has even reached the national stage with bipartisan legislation called the Real MEAT Act coming before the U.S. House of Representatives last year that required any products made to simulate beef, but does not come entirely from a cow, to be labeled "imitation." The bill never made it out of subcommittee.
The plant-based sector has shaken the foundations of the protein industry. The Good Food Institute reported U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods climbed 17% to exceed $3.7 billion in 2018. Growth only accelerated during the pandemic as sales of plant-based meat alternatives skyrocketed 148% versus 2019, and sales grew twice as fast as animal-protein equivalents during the four months ending April 19.
Supporters of laws that require qualifying statements to differentiate between animal-based and plant-based protein claim that it is to alleviate any confusion. A recent study from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association found that fewer than half of consumers understand that "plant-based beef" is a vegan product, but previous studies have shown that consumers aren't confused by plant-based labels.
To help alleviate any confusion as well as temper the heated labeling debate in U.S. courts, the Plant Based Foods Association released a set of voluntary labeling standards for plant-based meat alternatives with the goal of promoting consistency across the category. In the standards, the trade group specified that products should include a prominent reference to a qualifier that describes the origin of the product.