States skewer fake meat over ‘mis­lead­ing’ la­bels

ACLU, To­furkey fight laws in court

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VALERIE RICHARD­SON

Arkansas farmer David Hill­man was in­trigued when he ran across a prod­uct at the gro­cery store called “cau­li­flower rice,” un­til he re­al­ized it wasn’t re­ally rice. Then he was steamed.

“I looked at the la­bel, and it wasn’t rice at all. It was cau­li­flower,” said Mr. Hill­man, a Repub­li­can state leg­is­la­tor who grows rice at his farm in Almyra. “And I thought, ‘Well, how can they get by with this?’”

His bill re­quir­ing “truth in la­bel­ing” for ed­i­ble agri­cul­tural prod­ucts was ap­proved in March as the ranch­ing and farm­ing in­dus­tries sought to pro­tect their brands from be­ing con­fused with the many plant-based items crop­ping up on su­per­mar­ket shelves.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union has an­other word for it: cen­sor­ship.

ACLU at­tor­neys were in fed­eral court last week on be­half of To­furky seek­ing to block the Arkansas law, which pro­hibits fake beef, poul­try, pork and rice mak­ers from adopt­ing la­bels with terms as­so­ci­ated with the real stuff.

That would in­clude To­furky fa­vorites such as “sausages,” “brats” and “roasts,” even though CEO Jaime Athos in­sisted that con­sumers opt for such foods “not be­cause they are con­fused or mis­led, but be­cause they are savvy and ed­u­cated about the health and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of eat­ing an­i­mal prod­ucts.”

“Phrases like ‘veg­gie burger’ are wellestab­lished in com­mon ver­nac­u­lar and help con­sumers choose a plant-based al­ter­na­tive that works best for their fa­vorite dishes,” he said. “We hope to block this un­con­sti­tu­tional law from be­ing en­forced so that con­sumers can con­tinue to have ac­cess to fa­mil­iar plant-based prod­ucts in Arkansas, and ul­ti­mately across the United States.”

Arkansas is one of eight agri­cul­tural states to en­act laws against “mis­lead­ing” la­bels on syn­thetic and plant-based foods in the ab­sence of na­tional rules on the grow­ing cor­nu­copia of faux meat and dairy prod­ucts.

Sales of plant-based meat and milks grew by 17% last year, out­pac­ing to­tal re­tail food sales, which in­creased by 2%. The fake meats ac­counted for $684 mil­lion in sales, while the “milks” made from al­monds, cashews, soy beans and more reached $1.8 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the Good Food In­sti­tute, a trade as­so­ci­a­tion for the in­dus­try.

“Sooner or later, the FDA and the USDA are go­ing to have to come out with stan­dards,” said Mr. Hill­man. “That was an im­pe­tus be­hind this bill. If enough states would call at­ten­tion to this prob­lem, they would have to do some­thing.”

The trend is ex­pected to heat up as fast­food chains in­tro­duce their own meat­less pat­ties. Burger King is sell­ing the Im­pos­si­ble Whop­per, and McDonald’s is test-mar­ket­ing its Gar­den Gourmet In­cred­i­ble Burger in Ger­many.

“La­bel cen­sor­ship will re­sult in mis­lead­ing la­bels and fewer op­tions for con­sumers,” said the Good Food In­sti­tute, a plain­tiff in the Arkansas case.

Colin Woodall, CEO of the Na­tional Cat­tle­men’s Beef As­so­ci­a­tion, ar­gued that the meat­less prod­ucts are pig­gy­back­ing off years of brand­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing by ranch­ers, cit­ing, for ex­am­ple, Beyond Meat’s “Beyond Beef” prod­ucts, or other non-meat items la­beled “beefy.”

“We do not be­lieve any of these plant­based prod­ucts should use the term ‘beef’ at all,” Mr. Woodall said. “Beef is some­thing that has been as­so­ci­ated with us for mil­len­nia, and what they’re try­ing to do is repli­cate or im­i­tate with­out com­ing up with their own nomen­cla­ture.”

Chang­ing com­mon food names has hap­pened be­fore. U.S. farm­ers re­branded the “al­li­ga­tor pear” as the “av­o­cado,” send­ing sales soar­ing, although back­ers of plant­based foods call it un­re­al­is­tic to de­mand that the in­dus­try cre­ate new terms for com­mon­place items such as “ham­burg­ers” and “hot dogs.”

“No one knows what a ‘veg­gie disc’ is, and to force our client to use such a la­bel is ab­surd and un­con­sti­tu­tional,” said Brian Hauss, staff at­tor­ney for the ACLU’s Speech, Pri­vacy and Tech­nol­ogy Project. “This law is cre­at­ing con­sumer con­fu­sion and cen­sor­ing busi­nesses from com­mu­ni­cat­ing truth­fully about their prod­ucts.”

The Arkansas bill has been blasted as an ef­fort by the Farm Bureau and cat­tle­mens as­so­ci­a­tions to beat back com­pe­ti­tion, but Mr. Hill­man in­sisted it’s just com­mon sense. His bill had vir­tu­ally no op­po­si­tion as it rolled through the state Gen­eral Assem­bly. It passed the Se­nate by a vote of 31-3 and the House by a vote of 87-4.

“Burger King is now sell­ing meat­less ham­burg­ers. They’re very upfront about it, they say ex­actly what it is, there’s no meat, and I say, more power to them. If that’s what the pub­lic wants, that’s what we’re go­ing to give them,” Mr. Hill­man said. “But don’t sell one thing and call it some­thing else. Don’t sell a Cadil­lac and call it a Chevrolet.”

In its re­sponse, the Arkansas at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice ar­gued that the re­quest for a pre­lim­i­nary in­junc­tion is un­nec­es­sary given that the state has opted not to en­force the law un­til the le­gal bat­tle is re­solved. It also said the case is un­likely to suc­ceed on the mer­its.

“As an ini­tial mat­ter, To­furky’s mis­lead­ing com­mer­cial speech is not pro­tected by the First Amend­ment,” said the brief.

Other states ap­prov­ing truth in la­bel­ing laws are Louisiana, Mis­sis­sippi, Mis­souri, Ok­la­homa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wy­oming. In Fe­bru­ary, the ACLU reached a set­tle­ment with Mis­souri of­fi­cials af­ter chal­leng­ing the state law.

Mr. Hill­man said the Arkansas leg­is­la­tion, Act 501, is the most in­nocu­ous of the state laws be­cause it doesn’t in­clude faux dairy prod­ucts and im­poses fines of $1,000 per vi­o­la­tion, but no crim­i­nal penal­ties.

“It was prob­a­bly the un­con­tro­ver­sial thing that I have done,” said Mr. Hill­man. “I don’t want to pun­ish any­body. I just want peo­ple to la­bel their stuff right.”

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