JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal lawsuit says Mississippi is violating free-speech rights by banning makers of plant-based foods from using terms such as "meatless meatballs" and "vegan bacon."
The lawsuit against Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and the state's Republican agriculture commissioner, Andy Gipson, was filed Monday by the Plant Based Foods Association and the Illinois-based Upton's Naturals Co., which makes vegan products and sells them in many states, including Mississippi. It was filed the same day Mississippi enacted a new law that declares "a plant-based or insect-based food product shall not be labeled as meat or a meat food product."
"The ban serves only to create consumer confusion where none previously existed," says the lawsuit, which is backed by Institute for Justice, a free-market advocacy group based in Virginia.
A similar food labeling lawsuit was filed in Missouri last year by the Oregon-based Tofurky Co., which makes vegetarian food products, and the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to meat. A Missouri law made it a misdemeanor to label plant-based products as meat.
Producers of beef, poultry, pork and lamb have been pushing to protect meat terminology as companies develop more plant-based products that look and taste similar to meat. The Good Food Institute says 12 states have enacted what it calls "meat label censorship" laws. In addition to Mississippi and Missouri, the states are Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.
The Louisiana measure signed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards prohibits veggie products from being called meat, non-rice products from being described as rice and sugar alternatives from being marketed as sugar. It becomes law in October 2020.
The chairman of the Mississippi Senate Agriculture Committee, Republican Billy Hudson of Hattiesburg, was chief sponsor of the meat labeling legislation. He said the state agriculture department and the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association pushed for it because of concerns that consumers could be misled. The Mississippi law also says food produced using animal tissue cultured in a laboratory may not be labeled as meat.
"They tell me that fake steak looks just like our real meat," Hudson told The Associated Press on Monday. He said if a consumer sees two similar products side by side, they could think they're getting meat when they're not. "I don't want to eat meat grown by a test tube in a laboratory," Hudson said. "If my constituents do, they ought to know what they're getting."
Mississippi's agriculture commissioner said Tuesday that he looks forward to defending the law.
"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." The lawsuit in Mississippi says that Upton's Naturals does not make meat products but does use terms such as "vegan burgers," ''vegan bacon" and "vegan chorizo."
"These terms, as used by Upton's Naturals, increase consumer understanding of the foods' characteristics and communicate how the foods should be prepared and eaten," the lawsuit says. The Plant Based Foods Association says in the lawsuit that "no reasonable consumer would be misled" by terms such as "meatless steaks" and "vegan jerky."
Jessica Almy, policy director for the Good Food Institute, said the food labeling restrictions in Mississippi should be overturned: "This law is a tremendous overstep of state powers and is really just a sad attempt to censor veggie burgers."