New food-labeling law faces legal backlash from ‘meatless’ industry

Posted on Jul 10 2019 - 11:42pm by Eliza Noe

Mississippi legislators are making “impossible burgers” a little more impossible to obtain for vegans and vegetarians in the state after passing Senate Bill 2922 earlier this month. The bill prevents companies from labeling plant-based or insect-based foods as meat products.

Makers of these “meatless meat” products could now face a hefty penalty for marketing vegan and vegetarian products that mimic animal-based foods. 

The law, which passed unanimously, states, “A food product that contains cultured animal tissue produced from animal cell cultures outside of the organism from which it is derived shall not be labeled as meat or meat food products. A plant-based or insect-based food product shall not be labeled as meat or meat food products.” 

Billy Hudson, the chairman of the Mississippi Senate Agriculture Committee, was chief sponsor of the bill. He told the Associated Press that he doesn’t want consumers to be misled by animal tissues that were cultured in a laboratory. 

“They tell me that fake steak looks just like our real meat,” he said. “I don’t want to eat meat grown by a test tube in a laboratory. If my constituents do, they ought to know what they’re getting.”

Though proponents claim that the bill will clarify any confusion from consumers while also protecting cattle farmers from competing with these businesses, others view the law as redundant. 

The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the action, claiming that eliminating these terms will only increase confusion. 

Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson and Gov. Phil Bryant were both named in the lawsuit. Gipson said in a statement that the law was written to provide clear information to consumers and “defend common sense.” 

“A food product made of insect-protein should not be deceptively labeled as beef,” Gipson said. “Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein. Words mean something.” 

Gipson also added in a later Facebook post that he believes a plant should never be referred to as meat. 

“Is there such a thing as ‘plant meat,’ ‘insect meat’ or ‘lab grown meat?’ I don’t think so,” Gipson wrote. “If it isn’t meat, just don’t call it meat. Mississippi consumers deserve to know something labeled as meat really is, well, farm-raised meat. Anyone claiming something else is spreading hogwash.”

Daniel Staackmann, founder of vegan food company Upton’s Naturals, said that they use these labels to clearly convey that the food does not contain animal matter. 

“Our labels are not trying to trick consumers into buying our vegan foods,” Staackmann said. 

Staackmann believes that the new law is specifically targeting plant-based products to give meat producers an advantage.

“We describe our foods as alternatives to meat so consumers can easily understand what meat-based product they can potentially replace,” Staackmann said. “Mississippi’s law is not about clearing up consumer confusion, it’s about stifling competition and putting plant-based companies at a disadvantage in the marketplace.”  

The PBFA and Upton’s Naturals is teaming up with Institute for Justice, a group that has fought a similar bill in other states, as a part of IJ’s National Food Freedom Initiative. With this case, IJ Managing Attorney Justin Pearson said that this case will hopefully dismantle the “win for the meat industry’s lobbyists” that restricts the freedom of plant-based companies. 

“No one thinks plant-based burgers or vegan hot dogs contain meat,” Pearson said. “To the contrary, those terms tell consumers that they are buying exactly what they want: a plant-based alternative to animal meat. By banning the terms customers understand best, Mississippi is not only creating confusion, but also violating the First Amendment rights of both sellers and consumers.”