New Missouri law and litigation shows 'meat' is the industry's newest four-letter word
Missouri was sued in federal court the day before a state law went into effect which would ban plant-based and cell-cultured meat producers from using the words "meat," "beef," "chicken" and "sausages" on their labels, even if the terms "plant-based" or "vegan" are also used, Food Navigator reported.
The plaintiffs are the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the plant-based brand Tofurky. Their complaint argues the new state law is unconstitutional and would criminalize the word "meat." They asked the court for a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement until the lawsuit is settled.
The Missouri law — the first in the country — was passed in May as part of an omnibus agriculture bill and was supported by the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association as a way to reduce shopper confusion and protect local ranchers. The law includes language prohibiting "misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production [of] livestock or poultry." Violations would be subject to a $1,000 fine and a one-year prison term.
Makers of plant-based meat substitutes are treating Missouri’s new law as a direct threat, although they believe the terminology currently used on their product labels — for example, "deli slices," "burger," "sausages," or "hot dogs," along with "plant-based," "meat-free," "vegetarian," or "vegan" — isn't likely to confuse anyone into thinking the package contains real meat or poultry.
"The marketing and packaging of plant-based products reveals that plant-based food producers do not mislead consumers but instead distinguish their products from conventional meat products while also describing how these plant-based meat products can fulfill the same roles conventional meat has traditionally played in consumers’ meals," the complaint states.
According to USA Today, a spokesman for the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association said he was surprised by the legal complaint because the law's primary target was lab-grown meat.
"The big issue was marketing with integrity and ... consumers knowing what they’re getting," Mike Deering told the newspaper. "There's so much unknown about this."
Whether there is really widespread consumer confusion about cell-cultured meat or plant-based meat substitutes remains to be seen. Plant-based alternatives have been in the marketplace for years now, so most consumers can probably tell the difference between them and the real thing. But when it comes to cell-cultured products, shoppers may not be clear about how those differ from meat and poultry derived from traditional processes in which animals are raised to be slaughtered.
The Missouri cattlemen's group no doubt wanted to get some product protections established before cell-cultured meat and poultry products hit the marketplace, which could be later this year or 2019. The national regulatory framework is still being debated, so the industry decided to lobby now for a state law banning "meat" terminology pending similar action on the national level.
The beef industry claims the end result of developing "cultured" meat in a lab from animal tissues could be the elimination of animal agriculture, or cutting it back in a major way, potentially leaving vast amounts of grazing land idle. As a result, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the definition of "beef" and "meat" to products made "from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner." That would be a much easier route to take than trying to pass related legislation state by state, although cell-cultured meat companies say such a move would have a negative effect on innovation just when global protein needs are growing.
It's hard to tell whether this lawsuit will be successful, although it's likely the plaintiffs will be able to get a preliminary injunction from the court stopping the Missouri law from being enforced while the case is decided. Ultimately, the plaintiffs want a permanent injunction and a declaration that the law is unconstitutional, plus costs and attorneys' fees. Chances are other states looking to emulate Missouri will wait and see how this legal challenge turns out before they take a similar step.
This dispute echoes another fight over whether the term "milk" should be used by plant-based beverage products. The dairy industry is adamant that plant-based product labels confuse consumers and the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to animal-based milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the definition of "milk" and intends to ask members of the public how they understand the term and then try to find consensus about how to proceed.