For vegans, things have never been better: This Fourth of July, they can grill up their choice of plant-based burgers, sausages and hot dogs, dressing them with egg-free mayonnaiseand dairy-free cheese—before finishing off with a scoop or two of cream-less ice cream.
But not everyone is happy about it. State by state, meat and dairy industries have found sympathetic legislators and pushed for bills that restrict the way these products are labeled in stores, arguing that foods can only be called “milk” if it’s the result of lactation and “meat” if it’s from a slaughtered animal. This follows decades of relatively little resistance by the dairy industry amid a recent explosion of dairy-free milks made from soy, almonds, oats and a host of other ingredients.
Now, the plant-based industry is fighting back.
On Monday, vegan “meat” maker Upton’s Naturals Co. and the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group, sued Mississippi’s governor and commissioner of agriculture and commerce in federal court, arguing labeling restrictions violate their First Amendment right to free speech by preventing them from using the phrases consumers understand, like “meatless meatballs” and “vegan chorizo.”
Mississippi’s law, passed in March and effective on Monday, stipulates that plant-based foods cannot be labeled as meat or “a meat food product.” It doesn’t matter if the product also states on the label that it’s 100% vegan, plant-based or meatless: If the product uses the word “meat” or another word that links it to the animal product it’s meant to substitute, then it will run afoul of the law. The legislation, the lawsuit says, is a direct result of lobbying by meat groups.
“The proper arena to address competition is in the marketplace, directly speaking to consumers; it’s not to go to your friends in the state legislature to do your bidding,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, which represents Upton’s and more than 140 other companies. “Our members are competing fair and square in the marketplace.”
Mississippi’s Department of Agriculture and Commerce, along with the state’s cattle and poultry associations, supported the state law that went into effect on July 1. Andy Gipson, the commissioner of agriculture and commerce, who’s also a cattle farmer, said in an interview before the lawsuit was filed that alternative meat products have a place in the market, but the law ensures consumers are clear about what they’re buying. In particular, the meat industry doesn’t want to end up like the dairy industry, which is always seeing new “milks” materialize in grocery aisles. The law will preserve the traditional meaning of the word meat, Gipson said.
In response to the lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce said it has a “duty and obligation to the enforce the law” and that it wanted to ensure that consumer in the state have “clear information on the meat and non-meat products they purchase.”
“A food product made of insect-protein should not be deceptively labeled as beef. Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein,” Gipson said in a statement. “Words mean something.”
Governor Phil Bryant didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.
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