In Arkansas, it’s about to be illegal to call a veggie burger a veggie burger. The new law, set to go into effect on July 24, is the latest in a series of state laws to ban plant-based meat producers from using “meat” and related words in their labelling. But a new federal lawsuit argues that the Arkansas law violates both the First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.
The law “has morphed into something even more extreme” than some of the other state laws, says Jessica Almy, director of policy for the nonprofit Good Food Institute, which researches the plant-based meat industry and is a party to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Tofurky along with the ACLU and Animal Legal Defense Fund. The group also sued Missouri over a similar law last year, the case is still ongoing. Many states have passed similar laws since, but Arkansas is thee next to take effect. The ban there extends to phrases like “plant-based sausage” and “veggie hot dogs” and the use of other terms that historically have been associated with a specific agricultural product—meaning “cauliflower rice” is also banned, since it isn’t technically rice, as is “almond milk,” despite the fact that “milk” has a long history of meaning more than a product from a cow.
Legislators argued that they wanted to prevent misleading consumers, though there’s no evidence that anyone has ever been misled—and since the value proposition of plant-based meat and dairy is the fact that they didn’t come from animals, brands already have an incentive to make that fact very clear. “The problem with this law is it’s put forward as if it’s about truth in labeling,” Almy says. “But the reality is that it’s not going to advance any consumer understand at all. Instead, it’s going to obfuscate the nature of the foods that these plant-based meat producers are producing.”
It’s not clear what brands could put on packages to comply with the law, which threatens a $1,000 fine for every package that violates it. In the case of “veggie sausage,” Almy says that producers have brainstormed words like “roll,” “finger,” or “tube,” none of which are as understandable as the word sausage—and all of which are pretty unappetizing. “If you’re talking about a ‘veggie roll,’ you might be thinking about bakery products, you’re thinking of a ‘veggie finger,’ you might be thinking of human appendages . . . those are all ridiculous,” she says. “Consumers don’t talk like that.” Tofurky sells products like “vegetarian ham roast” and “hot dogs” with “plant-based” on the label and a cartoon drawing of a hot dog saying “It’s vegan!”
Over the past two years, plant-based meat sales have grown around 37%, far faster than sales of meat from animals, and the agriculture industry has pushed for laws like the one in Arkansas. All of the laws have faced legal opposition. And the FDA, which prevents companies from labelling food in misleading ways, hasn’t taken any action against plant-based meat companies. “I don’t know that any of the companies have changed their labels,” says Almy. “I think there is, you know, a widespread belief that these laws are unconstitutional and will be struck down by the court.”