Upton's Naturals, a Chicago-based maker of plant-based meat alternatives, and the Plant Based Foods Association have sued Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson over the state's new law banning plant-based or cell-cultured products from being labeled as meat or a meat food product. The complaint was filed in federal court on July 1, the same day the law went into effect.
The plaintiffs claim the law violates their First Amendment rights "to engage in non-misleading speech, so that they may continue to use the labels that are best understood by their customers." The complaint noted Upton's uses "vegan burgers," "vegan bacon" and "vegan chorizo" on its labels, but that "[N]o reasonable consumer would be misled by the way Upton's uses these terms." According to Food Navigator, the Mississippi law has no exceptions for label terms such as "meatless meatballs" or "plant-based jerky."
The plaintiffs said the law passed the 2019 legislative session because industry lobbying groups — the North American Meat Association, Mississippi Cattlemen's Association and Mississippi Farm Bureau — asked lawmakers to make it harder for companies selling plant-based alternatives to compete with them. The complaint claims representatives of those groups publicly stated they wanted to avoid losing revenue like the dairy industry did because of competition from plant-based beverages.
Manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives and others have now taken legal action against two restrictive state labeling laws. The Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the plant-based brand Tofurky sued over a similar Missouri law that went into effect last year. The parties have reportedly been in settlement talks in that dispute.
It's not surprising makers and supporters of plant-based products are challenging the Mississippi law. They don't want to have to redesign product labels, which takes time and money. It would also be a logistics hassle to have one type of label on products sold in a certain state and others elsewhere. Plant-based manufacturers also say consumers are aware their products don't contain real meat, and changing labels to conform to the Mississippi law would create confusion where none exists.
In a statement issued after the lawsuit was filed this week, Jessica Almy of the Good Food Institute called the Mississippi law "a tremendous overstep of state powers" and predicted it would be overturned.
"We are optimistic that the federal court, which is required to uphold the U.S. Constitution, will agree with the plaintiffs that this law is an unconstitutional attempt to censor commercial speech and harm the free market," she said.
Mississippi state officials said they plan to defend the new law. Bloomberg reported the Department of Agriculture and Commerce said it has a duty and obligation to enforce it so consumers have information on the products they purchase.
Defendant Andy Gipson, Mississippi's commissioner of agriculture and commerce, expressed a similar view, according to the Associated Press.
"A food product made of insect protein should not be deceptively labeled as beef," Gipson told the wire service. "Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein."
However, it's not clear how Mississippi will be enforcing the labeling law and how sales of plant-based meat alternatives will be handled there now.
A number of states have passed laws restricting use of the term "meat" on plant-based or cell-cultured food products, according to the Good Food Institute. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming.
While these state-level laws and legal challenges play out, there may be increased pressure on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Congress to establish nationwide labeling rules regarding plant-based meat alternatives. Some legal analysts maintain that's where the discussion rightfully belongs. After all, state-based requirements to label genetically modified organisms started in Vermont, and similar laws were being considered by other states before Congress stepped in and passed a national disclosure law in 2016.
The FDA has already waded into the debate over what the term "milk" means and may do something similar with the term "meat." But if it's anything like the debate over regulating cell-cultured meat, it could end up being a lengthy and contentious process.