New laws aim to restrict the use of meaty terms for vegan, vegetarian, and insect-based products.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 08, 2019
Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After decades of being relegated to the sidelines, plant-based meat alternatives are moving into the mainstream — driven by innovation, an increase in flexitarians, and the industry’s own buzz. But though plant-based producers may have the momentum, one thing they often lack is the political clout of the old guard, and as about half the states in America look to restrict the ways these meat-free options can be labeled, the fight has recently intensified in two states.

Last week, the vegan brand Upton’s Naturals and the Plant Based Foods Association filed a lawsuit in Mississippi claiming that the state’s new legislation making it illegal to use meat terms when selling non-meat-based food violates the First Amendment. A similar lawsuit surrounding a similar rule in Missouri also appears to be headed back to court after the parties involved announced Wednesday that they were unable to reach a settlement, according to FoodNavigator-USA. That suit, which comes courtesy of the well-known brand Tofurky as well as the Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, was originally filed last August.

At their core, laws protecting food labels make sense for consumers. You wouldn’t want to buy something labeled as beef and find out its horse meat. Frankly, you wouldn’t want things the other way around either: What you buy should be what you get. But at the same, you want to give brands room to accurately describe their products in a way that allows customers to know what they are. Plant-based meat brands argue that any reasonable person understands that “planted-based meat” isn’t “real” meat. And yet, some of these restrictive new laws imply that even using a term like “meat” may confuse consumers.

In its defense, Upton’s Naturals laid out a pretty compelling argument. “It would be a disaster for Upton's Naturals if the public were to think that the company had started selling meat,” their lawsuit says according to CNN. Indeed, the fact that labeling is a two-way street is often overlooked. Planted-based food producers rely on their consumers knowing they’re not meat. And if their labels were deceptive enough to convince customers to think otherwise, existing laws are probably already on the books that could hold them accountable for such misleading claims. It’s for reasons like this that the plant-based side sees these recent laws as protections for the meat industry, not the consumer.

Regardless, last week’s news in Mississippi and Missouri would seem to signal that the courts will be weighing in with their thoughts in the near future.