Melia Robinson/Business Insider
- The Plant Based Foods Association and Upton’s Naturals Co., a vegan meat maker, sued Mississippi’s governor and commissioner of agriculture and commerce in federal court on Monday.
- The lawsuit alleges that a labeling law effective July 1 in Mississippi violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
- The labeling law restricts companies from using descriptors such as "meatless meatballs", "hot dogs", "jerky", and even "veggie burgers."
- Read more on Markets Insider.
The fight over what to call plant-based meat alternatives is ramping up.
On Monday, the Plant Based Foods Association and Upton’s Naturals Co., a Chicago-based vegan meat maker, sued Mississippi’s governor and commissioner of agriculture and commerce in federal court. They allege labeling restrictions in the state that keep them from using descriptors such as "meatless meatballs", "hot dogs", "jerky", and even "veggie burgers" violate their First Amendment right to free speech.
Mississippi’s labeling law went into effect July 1. It could make using the word "meat" or any terminology associated with meat to describe plant-based foods subject to criminal penalties.
"It creates a logistical nightmare and huge cost," Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group, told Markets Insider in an interview. For companies such as Upton’s Naturals, which clearly marks its products as "100% Vegan," it could mean that to sell in Mississippi, it would have to print new region-specific labels.
In a statement, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce said it was obliged to enforce the law.
"It is unfortunate the plaintiffs have resorted to litigation without reviewing our proposed rules, or offering comments to those proposed rules," said Commissioner Andy Gipson in a statement on Twitter. "A food product made of insect-protein should not be deceptively labeled as beef. Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein. Words mean something."
Other states including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Wyoming have passed similar laws about what can be labeled meat.
The animal protein industry isn’t the only one protected by states — in Wisconsin, the dairy lobby has campaigned heavily against alternative dairy products and how such products are labeled. The dairy industry contends that words such as "butter" and "milk" don’t belong on vegan products, Bloomberg reported.
The Plant Based Foods Association has also fought against big dairy. The group has 147 company members, according to its website, including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Oatly, Morningstar Farms, and Tofurky.
The stakes are high for plant-based alternative companies, many of which are privately held. Analysts have said that the plant-based meat alternatives industry, which is currently worth an estimated $14 billion, could grow to $140 billion in the next ten years. Recently, the popularity of Beyond Meat’s blockbuster IPO — it’s now trading up more than 500% — has shown that there is demand for such products on the market and in kitchens across the US.
But much of that growth relies on converting meat eaters to try the product, and hopefully swap it for at least some of their animal-protein consumption. It’s a trend that has grown lately as even companies such as Tyson Foods launched plant-based meat alternative products as well as blended products which contain both meat and vegetables.
"In the past these types of products have been aimed at a niche audience," Simon said. "But what’s really exciting about what’s happening right now is that these products are broadening their scope, audience, by going mainstream."
This shift means companies need to be able to clearly convey the nature of the product. But it may be an uphill battle — overall meat consumption has increased in the US and abroad. Not being able to tell consumers what to expect from plant-based products is worrying to companies like Upton’s Naturals.
If a company has a vegan product that is designed to remind the consumer of bacon but they can’t use the word bacon, "what words are they going to use?" said Simon. "It will create more confusion in the marketplace, not less."
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