The Plant Based Foods Association and Upton's Naturals dropped their federal lawsuit against Mississippi on Nov. 7 — the same day the state's revised labeling regulations went into effect allowing plant-based products to carry common meat-like terms such as "burger" and "hot dog" as long as terminology indicating they are plant-based is also used.
The trade organization and the Chicago-based manufacturer of plant-based meat alternatives sued Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson on July 1 over the state's new law banning plant-based or cell-cultured products from being labeled as meat or a meat food product.
Justin Pearson, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice and lead attorney for the plaintiffs, called the move "a total victory" and said in a release his clients just wanted to keep using labels with terms consumers understand best. Gipson said in a statement the lawsuit had always been "hogwash" as well as "unnecessary and frivolous." He wrote it was unfortunate that the "veggie burger gang" had even filed the suit, and its withdrawal shows all the plaintiffs needed to do was work with Mississippi officials on the proposed rules.
According to the PBFA's release, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture withdrew the proposed labeling regulation from the law passed earlier this year and replaced it with another more acceptable to the plaintiffs. The end to the lawsuit is no surprise. Mississippi officials initially proposed the new rules in September as a way of helping makers of plant-based foods comply with the ban on meat-based terms by using a "comparable qualifier" on package labeling, and the plant-based plaintiffs indicated they may drop the lawsuit if those revised rules were adopted.
Plant-based food manufacturers are likely to breathe a sigh of relief since no company wanted to spend time and money to redesign labels just to sell products in one state. Plant-based manufacturers said consumers are aware their products don't contain real meat, and many say changing labels to conform to state law would create confusion where none exists.
States, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, have laws similar to the one in Mississippi. Arkansas and Missouri have also been sued. Plaintiffs in the Missouri litigation — the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and plant-based brand Tofurky — had asked for a preliminary injunction to stop the law from being enforced, but a federal judge recently denied that request. The plaintiffs have appealed.
A similar group of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in July against the Arkansas law and are waiting for a judge's decision on their preliminary injunction request. They want the court to throw out the law and delay enforcement as the legal battle plays out.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 bills regarding meat labeling have been proposed in 26 states as of August. Of those, 17 have been enacted in 14 states.
It's possible more lawsuits will be filed nationwide as plant-based product manufacturers and other supporters maintain they're unconstitutional and a violation of free speech. Supporters, though, say the goal is to reduce consumer confusion when plant-based items are sitting next to meat products in retail display cases.
Rather than pursue a laborious and costly patchwork of state-level laws, the meat industry is pushing for congressional action to restrict meat-like label terms to products actually containing meat from a cow. Last month, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives requiring products made to simulate beef, but not containing the real thing, to be labeled "imitation." That bill has been assigned to committees, but no hearings have been scheduled.
It's hard to tell whether national legislation will be successful, and it will take time to see how litigation over state labeling laws gets resolved. The Mississippi case could be a template for resolving legal disputes over similar labeling laws, but since five months of negotiations finally reached an impasse in Missouri, talks are no guarantee of a settlement.