In a win for free speech and veggie burgers everywhere, yesterday Mississippi officially revised its restrictive labeling rules around plant-based meat. The original regulations restricted companies from using traditional meat terms like “burger,” “hot dog,” and indeed “meat” on their packaging, even when preceded by terms like “vegan” or “plant-based,” arguing that the lingo could confuse consumers. This despite the fact that we’ve been buying veggie burgers for decades.
Mississippi’s restrictive meat labeling legislation went into effect in July of this year. In response, the Plant Based Food Association (PBFA) and member company Upton’s Naturals immediately sued the state, claiming that the new rules were a violation of the First Amendment. As a result of the lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture proposed a new regulation in September that would let plant-based meat companies use terms like “veggie burger” and “vegan hot dog.” Yesterday that regulation took effect.
Mississippi wasn’t the only state to institute such strict labeling rules over the past year or so. Arkansas, Missouri, and a dozen other states have also banned a myriad of meat labeling terms. Under many of the states’ rules, each “offense” could be punishable by a $1,000 fine or one year in jail.
But plant-based meat wasn’t going to take these restrictions lying down. In August of last year the PBFA, Tofurky, the ACLU, and the Good Food Institute formed a coalition to sue Missouri, arguing that the new rules violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The group also challenged similar laws in Arkansas.
Jaime Athos, the CEO of Tofurky and President of the Board of the PBFA, spoke with me about the labeling issue in depth at SKS 2019 last month. There he told me that these labeling bills are a result of pressure from meat lobbies, which are threatened by the recent astronomical growth of the plant-based meat sector. They don’t actually serve the consumer. In fact, he argued that they could actually end up confusing the consumer, since people have been buying veggie burgers and vegan hot dogs for decades.”It’s insulting to the consumer,” he said.
It seems that at least in Mississippi, Tofurky has successfully netted a win for plant-based meat. But there are still many other battlefronts they have to win. “We hope that other states that introduced similar legislation in the past year, including Arkansas and Missouri, take note of Mississippi acknowledging and accepting already-used, clear qualifying terms such as ‘meat-free,’ ‘meatless,’ ‘plant-based,’ ‘vegetarian,’ and ‘vegan’ to describe plant-based protein products,” Athos wrote in an email statement to The Spoon.
Months ago, Athos told me that he and the coalition were fighting to establish a precedent with one of their three suits which would eventually kill all plant-meat labeling laws. This latest win with Mississippi could be just the precedent they were hoping for.