Where’s the beef? In Arkansas federal court, where the Tofurky Company challenged a new state law that prohibits the labeling of plant-based meat alternatives as “burgers,” “beef,” “pork” or “sausage” or other meat-related terms.
The state enacted Arkansas Act 501 in March with the stated aim of “protect[ing] consumers from being misled or confused by false or misleading labeling of agricultural products that are edible by humans.” The statute provides for civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.
Together with the ACLU, the Tofurky Company—which produces, markets and sells products with labels such as “White Quinoa Veggie Burger” and “Chorizo Style Sausage Made With Pasture Raised Plants”—told the court that the law runs afoul of the First Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment and the dormant commerce clause.
“The Act is a restriction on commercial speech that prevents companies from sharing truthful and non-misleading information about their products,” according to the complaint. “It does nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information. Instead, it creates consumer confusion where none existed before in order to impede competition.”
Despite the goal of Arkansas law, “[t]here is no evidence that consumers are confused about the ingredients or source of plant-based meats,” the plaintiffs alleged. To the contrary, Tofurky and other companies emphasize in their marketing and labeling that their products are plant-based alternatives to meat from animals, they said.
Existing federal laws—the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act; the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act; and two meat-related statutes—already prevent misleading or deceptive labeling for food products, the plaintiffs added, with neither the FTC nor the Food and Drug Administration bringing any enforcement actions to date for the use of “meat” or related terms to describe plant-based meats on labels or in marketing materials.
To comply with the act, Tofurky and its counterparts now face a choice, the plaintiffs said: continue to sell products in Arkansas as currently packaged and face a “substantial risk of ruinous liability”; design, produce and distribute different, specialized marketing and packaging for products sold in Arkansas, and face “a logistical nightmare”; change the entirety of their marketing and packaging nationwide “at considerable expense”; or refrain from marketing or selling products in Arkansas at all.
The plaintiffs asked the court for a declaration that the act is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to Tofurky, a preliminary injunction against the law, and a permanent injunction preventing the enforcement of the statute.
To read the complaint in Turtle Island Foods v. Soman, click here.
Why it matters: The Arkansas law joined similar efforts in other states (including Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota) that regulate the labeling of plant- or cell-based meat alternatives. The lawsuit sets up a showdown between the agricultural producers in the states and the burgeoning plant-based meat industry, which also has implications for other alternative food products, such as nondairy milk.