Legal Issues

Mississippi Gets Into a Tangle over What to Call Vegan Meat

New Labelling Laws to Protect the Usage of the Word “Meat” Being Challenged by the Plant-Based Food Association

“Words mean something,” says Andy Gipson the Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner. They certainly do. But what does the word “meat” mean? Can a meatless meatball be called a meatball? Is the word the exclusive preserve of a slaughtered animal? 

On Monday 1st July 2019 a new state law came into effect banning the use of terms traditionally associated with meat from being used to describe the “new meats”. Both plant-based foods and laboratory-cultured foods are covered by the new law. Any use of “meat” terminology would result in criminal penalties. 

On the very same day an Illinois vegan food company, Upton’s Naturals Co, and the Plant Based Foods Association filed a federal lawsuit to maintain the right to use phrases such as “vegan bacon” and “vegan chorizo”. They are suing the state of Mississippi to stop the law being enforced. For them, the law violates their First Amendment right to free speech. They are being backed by the Institute for Justice. 

Two competing views of what is Common Sense

They say that it is a matter of common sense that a product clearly labelled as “vegan bacon” is not real bacon and that no reasonable consumer could be misled by this. They contend that no right-thinking consumer could be misled by a product which is labelled with words such as “plant-based”, or “meatless” or other similar terms. They state clearly that any attempt to force a company to re-label such a product would be prohibitively expensive and unnecessary. 

“The proper arena to address competition is in the marketplace, directly speaking to consumers; it’s not to go to your friends in the state legislature to do your bidding,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. “Our members are competing fair and square in the marketplace.”

Simon added that “the Mississippi law would create unnecessary, confusing, and costly label changes that would stifle innovation and frustrate consumers.”

But whose definition of “common sense” will prevail. Mr Gipson in his statement says that “this will be an opportunity for us to defend legislative intent, and defend common sense.”

Furthermore ”a food product made of insect-protein should not be deceptively labelled as beef. Someone looking to purchase tofu should not be tricked into buying lab-grown animal protein. Words mean something. We look forward to defending the law to make sure Mississippi consumers have clear information on the meat and non-meat products they purchase,” says the Commissioner.

Mr Gipson is also a cattle farmer. 

Both sides claim common sense for their position. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece came down against the meat lobby on this one. 

A worldwide conundrum for the animal farming industry

These questions are being acted out in legislatures and regulatory authorities worldwide. 

The European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee voted on 1st April that a new nomenclature will be needed. It contends that names currently used for meat products should be reserved exclusively for products containing real meat. The prevailing favourite description for a vegan burger now appears to be a “vegan disc”. 

The dairy industry appears to have been a little more relaxed about the numerous new kinds of milk appearing – oat, soy, almond. In the case of the dairy state of Wisconsin, it was the attack on the butter market that seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

In the UK the first vegan cheese shop, La Fauxmagerie, received a huge amount of free publicity when Dairy UK wrote to it seeking to prevent it from using the word “cheese”. 

Does any of this matter? Are consumers being fooled by this? 

Or is it simply a case of the meat industry fighting back to preserve its turf?

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Nicholas Orosz

Nicholas is a former City solicitor and Cambridge graduate. He has a long-standing interest in health & nutrition, the environmental movement, green politics & digital publishing. He has always loved crafting words. His transition to a vegan perspective has been gradual and an ongoing process of self-discovery. Contact: nicholas@vegansbethechange.com

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