Purveyors of fake and real meat are going for blood in legal fights over labeling

By Sarah Min

/ MoneyWatch

Is alternative meat healthier than real?

A fierce constitutional fight is under way over how to label "veggie bacon" and other food items that use meat substitutes. The legal battle pits leading purveyors from the rapidly emerging fake meat industry, flanked by civil liberties advocates, against a number of U.S. states and agriculture industry interests.

In the latest skirmish, alternative meat manufacturer Tofurky last week sued Arkansas for passing a new labeling law that bars makers of plant-based food from using terms like veggie bacon, "cauliflower rice" and "almond milk." The Oregon company, which is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Animal League Defense Fund and Good Food Institute in the case, said in its complaint that the law infringes on free-speech liberties and unfairly protects the state's meat and rice industries. The law took effect last Wednesday.

Civil liberties lawyers argue that the law is "unconstitutionally vague," encouraging arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Supporters of alternative foods also say it prevents consumers from getting truthful information about products.

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"Consumers need to know what the product is a substitute for," Holly Dickson, legal director at the ACLU of Arkansas, told CBS MoneyWatch. "If the company says this is 'savory plant-based protein,' that does not convey the same information as 'veggie bacon.'"

A spokesperson for the Arkansas Bureau of Standards, a division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture charged with enforcing the law, declined to comment, saying the state agency is reviewing the complaint.

Truth in labeling?

The Arkansas case is the third lawsuit in the past year filed by plant-based advocates against a state for labeling law restrictions. The Plant Based Foods Association, an industry trade group, and Illinois alternative meat maker Upton's Naturals sued Mississippi earlier this month, while Tofurky and the ACLU also filed suit against Missouri last year over similar laws.

Across the U.S., a dozen states in the past year have passed laws barring alternative food companies from using "meat" in labels. Such restrictions have nothing to do with better labeling for consumers and everything to do with meat and poultry companies trying to thwart competitors, executives of plant food companies contend.

"These are just extra rules for our industry, because it's just exploding right now," Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos told CBS MoneyWatch. "I think there are appropriate ways to respond to competitive pressures and there are inappropriate ways to respond to competitive pressures."

Meat-alternative purveyor Beyond Meat sizzles in market debut

Certainly, fake meat is having a moment. California startup Beyond Meat's stock price has jumped more than eight-fold after a highly successful initial public offering in May and is now valued at more than $13 billion. Competitor Impossible Foods, which is privately held, is rolling out its products in Burger King locations nationwide and is racing to keep up with consumer demand.

Targeting meat lovers who want to cut back on their cravings, Beyond Meat has muscled its way from the freezer into meat coolers, while Impossible Foods sells a burger that "bleeds" with the help of an iron molecule called heme.

Even Tyson, the largest U.S. meat producer, is getting into fake meat. A spokesperson for the Arkansas-based food giant declined to comment on the state's food labeling law, but the new rule in Tyson's home state could present interesting challenges to a meat purveyor on both sides of the alternative protein issue.

Publicly traded Tyson reported $40 billion in revenue last year — 37% of that from sales from beef and 30% from sales of chicken. Yet it also owns stakes in startup lab-grown meat companies Memphis Meats and Jerusalem-based Future Meat Technologies, as well as in mushroom-based protein company MycoTechnology. It was also an early investor in Beyond Meat, but pulled out before Beyond Meat's IPO. In June, Tyson even debuted a line of plant-based and blended meat products.

Pressing the flesh

Agriculture industry representatives say fake meat companies' success mimicking the taste and sensory experience of real meat makes it important for consumers to know exactly what they're eating.

"We want to make it clear for Arkansans to understand what's in their purchase," said Lauren Ward, executive director at the Arkansas Rice Federation, a trade group that backed the state's new labeling law.

Impossible Foods and the growth of the meatless market

Industry proponents of the labeling restrictions also are pushing for stricter "standards of identity," the mandatory requirements set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that determine how food items are marketed. For example, they argue that rice is a grain determined by its scientific profile, not its shape. As such, "cauliflower rice" should instead be marketed as "cauliflower crumbles," Ward suggested.

Seeking to narrow down what may be described as meat, the Arkansas law defines beef to mean "the flesh of a domesticated bovine, such as a steer or cow, that is edible by humans."

Ward said the state's rice industry welcomes competition, but wants transparency for consumers. "While the First Amendment grants the right to speak freely, it doesn't grant the right to lie," she said.

But Dickson of the Arkansas ACLU noted that products marketed as hot dogs or burgers are also labeled "black bean," "plant-based," or "veggie," making their contents clear to shoppers. "There is no evidence that consumers are confused about the ingredients or source of plant-based meats," according to Tofurky's complaint.

First published on July 29, 2019 / 3:25 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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