- The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a Louisiana state law prohibiting meat terminology on food not derived from animal carcasses can be enforced, but it only applies to companies that are intentionally trying to deceive consumers.
- Lead plaintiff Tofurky and its co-plaintiffs the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Good Food Institute said Thursday the ruling is a win for their side because it narrows the law to companies that are overtly seeking to mislead consumers. In an email, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain said his office is pleased with the decision.
- This is the latest ruling in several legal sagas over state laws seeking to restrict labeling on plant-based meat products. Plant-based companies and advocates have claimed victory in cases in Arkansas and Mississippi. Tofurky is the lead plaintiff in pending lawsuits in Oklahoma and Missouri.
The ruling, at first glance, is deceptive. After all, it overturns the lower court’s ruling from last year that said the state law prohibiting meat terminology on food not derived from animal carcasses is unconstitutional.
However, in overturning the ruling, the appellate panel narrowed the scope of the law. The law says plant-based meat companies can be fined up to $500 per product, per day for using terms including “burger” or “sausage.” When Tofurky, GFI and ALDF first filed this lawsuit in 2020, they argued the law prohibited Tofurky from marketing or selling its products in Louisiana, since its products have labels like “plant-based burgers” and “plant-based ham style roast.”
In the appellate panel’s ruling, they took a close look at the actual language of the statute, which prohibits people and companies from “intentionally misbrand[ing] or misrepresent[ing] any food product as an agricultural product.”
“Nothing in the statute’s language requires the State to enforce its punitive provisions on a company that sells its products in a way that just so happens to confuse a consumer,” the appellate opinion states. “The State’s construction limits the Act’s scope to representations by companies that actually intend consumers to be misled.”
Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said in an emailed statement that this situation is already prohibited by consumer protection laws. What the ruling does, he said, is remove additional ambiguity or legal scrutiny for plant-based companies.
“Louisiana lawmakers were clearly doing the bidding of the animal agriculture lobby when they passed this protectionist law, but the Court’s ruling neutralized those unconstitutional efforts and restored some fairness to the marketplace,” he said.
In an interview, ALDF Managing Attorney Amanda Howell said the ruling raises the bar for violating the law so high, the state is unlikely to be able to use it to enforce any penalties.
Strain’s email statement simply said. “We are pleased with the recent decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the state’s Truth in Labeling of Food Products Act, the purpose of which is to protect consumers from the intentional misbranding or misrepresenting of any food product as an agricultural product.”
Howell hopes this latest ruling will serve as a deterrent to other state legislatures thinking of passing laws to prevent plant-based products from using meat terminology. The laws that have been passed have all been challenged in court, and none have stood up to legal scrutiny yet, though two cases are still pending.
A federal judge in Arkansas ruled the state law there unconstitutional, and found Tofurky’s labeling caused no consumer confusion about whether the products were indeed plant-based. Amid litigation, Mississippi changed its labeling law to allow terminology like “burger” and “hot dog” on packaging as long as it also indicates products are plant-based.
“What I'm hopeful for is that legislators who are considering passing these laws will say, ‘Look, the only way for us to keep these laws on the books is to basically agree that they don't do anything,’” she said. “Maybe skip all of the years of litigation and expense to taxpayers, and actually just not do any of this at all.”
Laura Braden, GFI’s lead regulatory counsel, said in an email GFI will continue to oppose laws that “create unfair roadblocks for producers of alternative proteins.”