- Tofurky is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that claims a Louisiana state law prohibiting meat terminology on food not derived from slaughtered animals is unconstitutional. The lawsuit was jointly filed by the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
- Under the Louisiana law, plant-based meat companies can be fined up to $500 per product, per day for using terms including "burger" and "sausage." It was signed into law by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on June 11, 2019, and took effect Oct. 1. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which enforces the law, did not comment on the case.
- While several states have passed similar labeling laws targeting the plant-based meat industry, they have not held up well when challenged. A lawsuit in Mississippi got the state to change its labeling regulations. There are currently pending lawsuits about state labeling laws in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.
Considering the track record of state laws that seek to limit labeling for plant-based products, this lawsuit could have been predicted last summer when the law was first signed. Plant-based meat companies — in conjunction with partners including the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense Fund, American Civil Liberties Union and Plant Based Foods Association — have been active in their opposition to laws they claim restrict their right to free speech.
“It’s absurd that Louisiana’s elected officials are spending their time on the imaginary crisis of people confusing veggie burgers for beef burgers,” Jessica Almy, the Good Food Institute's director of policy, said in a release. “Consumers deserve better than lawmakers passing condescending laws that try to dictate what Louisianans buy. Consumers are no more likely to believe that ‘veggie burgers’ contain cow meat than Girl Scout cookies contain Girl Scouts.”
According to reporting at the time, Louisiana's law was written and passed in order to protect the state's agricultural industry. Proponents also said they hoped to end consumer confusion.
The lawsuit argues there is no evidence of confusion, and that consumers understand products from manufacturers, including Tofurky, are clearly labeled as plant based.
Louisiana's law, however, goes further than just plant-based meat. It also prohibits anything that is not actually rice from having "rice" on its label, and would prohibit cell-based meat from being labeled as conventional meat.
Rice is not a common target of labeling legislation. Arkansas is the only other state that has a similar protection for rice by targeting minced cauliflower and other "riced" vegetables. The USA Rice Federation said in a release about the Louisiana law that they have had their eye on "rice pretenders," and will be working to put in place a federal standard of identity for products labeled as rice.
It's unclear if makers of riced vegetables are going to fight back. The rice issue is addressed in the same Arkansas law that deals with plant-based meat. This has partially been put on hold pending the resolution of the court case. Some of the sections of the Arkansas law, however, have been allowed to be enforced, including the one about rice.
Cell-based meat, however, is a much more common target of state labeling laws. It's a somewhat obscure industry to focus on, given that there will not be any products widely available to consumers for years. According to issue tracking from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 laws restricting meat labeling passed in 14 states in 2019, and bills to regulate meat labeling were proposed in at least nine states this year.
Because the Louisiana suit and all the others about plant-based meat were filed in federal court, the outcome of this case may be determined relatively quickly. If any of the previous cases actually go to trial, the precedent will likely be applied to all of them — and future labeling laws regarding plant-based meat. States have not had the best track record on these laws — and federal lawmakers have been unsuccessful in getting a national law even considered — but the pattern may continue without a definitive legal precedent.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry's response to questions about the lawsuit.