Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Arkansas, the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit July 22 in federal court claiming Arkansas' new labeling law violates the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. They are asking the court to throw out the law and grant a preliminary injunction, pausing its enforcement as the legal battle plays out.
The Arkansas law, which goes into effect July 24, bans plant-based meat producers from using the term "meat" or related words on product labeling. It's similar to a Missouri law passed last year, which the groups also challenged in court. Mississippi was also sued over its labeling law by Upton's Naturals and the Plant Based Foods Association earlier this month.
Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos told Food Navigator the Arkansas law puts the Oregon company "at a significant commercial disadvantage" because it either has to change its labeling only for products sold in Arkansas, change labeling for products sold nationwide, or no longer sell products in Arkansas. If Tofurky doesn't change existing labels for products sold in Arkansas, he said it would be "at substantial risk of ruinous civil liability."
Tofurky and the other plaintiffs in the Missouri lawsuit claim these state-level laws aren't meant to reduce consumer confusion about plant-based products. They say existing laws already prohibit misleading labeling, and state legislatures are merely doing the bidding of cattle producers and processors who are trying to limit competition from plant-based products.
The conventional meat industry has good reason to be worried. According to recent figures from Swiss investment firm UBS, the market for plant-based protein and meat alternatives could grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. The Good Food Institute reported U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods to replace animal products climbed 17% to exceed $3.7 billion in 2018.
The plant-based alternatives segment offers a number of advantages. With consumers trending toward healthier diets, new product launches presenting increased options, and concerns about the environment and animal welfare, more people are seeking out plant-based egg, dairy and meat products rather than conventional ones sourced from animals.
Sponsors of these state labeling laws say they're just trying to make sure shoppers know they're not getting real meat when they buy products with labels sporting the terms "sausage," "hot dog" or "roast," which some plant-based manufacturers use.
Arkansas Rep. David Hillman, sponsor of the bill in the state's House of Representatives, said that Tofurky and other plant-based food makers are welcome to sell their items there as long as they're labeled appropriately.
"You can’t sell a Chevy and call it a Cadillac," he told NBC News.
Travis Justice, chief economist for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, said the law amounts to a clarification so non-meat items won't be confused with actual meat. He noted the labeling dispute is similar to what has transpired with dairy-based milk and non-dairy products such as almond and soy beverages labeled as "milk."
"We're trying to prevent some of the connotations that they've gone through, with the meat industry," Justice told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
So far, manufacturers of plant-based meat alternatives and their supporters seem more than willing to take on these labeling laws in court. However, it's not clear how long the challenges will take or how successful they're going to be.
Lawyers for Tofurky, Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri had been in confidential settlement talks for months. According to court documents, the parties are now at an impasse and want to resume litigation.
These kinds of disputes are likely to continue since several states have passed laws restricting meat-like terms 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.
The Arkansas law is different from the others in that it also bans terms such as "almond milk" and "cauliflower rice" because they don't contain dairy or rice. That could invite additional legal challenges from makers of plant-based beverages and other directly impacted companies.
Although their businesses are also impacted by these laws, trendy manufacturers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have not joined in any of these legal challenges. Right now, they may prefer to spend their money on research and development and expanding their products to more markets — not lawyers and courtroom fights. Products made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are more targeted at carnivores, so that may dictate a different strategic approach.
While state-level legal challenges play out, there could 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, but the issue doesn't seem likely to be resolved anytime soon.