TUPELO • In the frozen foods section at Kroger are refrigerated cases full of ready-to-serve meals, ice cream, cakes, breads, seafood, meats and other consumable products, clearly labeled with signs hanging in the aisles.
But things might get a little complicated with a new Mississippi law that opponents say infringes on their free-speech rights.
On July 1, a law went into effect prohibiting producers of plant-based foods from using terms like “meatless meatballs,” “vegan hot dog” or “vegan burger.”
The Plant Based Foods Association, the Virginia-based Institute for Justice and the Illinois-based Upton’s Naturals Company, which makes vegan-based products and sells them in many states, including Mississippi, argued against the ban, insisting there is no confusion among consumers.
“The plant-based meat alternative category is on fire right now, with consumers demanding healthier and more sustainable options,” Michele Simon, the executive director of the PBFA, said in a statement. “This law, along with similar laws in several other states, is the meat lobby’s response.”
Mike McCormick, the president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said, “This bill will protect our cattle farmers from having to compete with products not harvested from an animal.”
His remarks were made in January when the bill passed in the Mississippi state House.
According to the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, producers of beef, poultry, pork and lamb have been pushing to protect meat terminology as companies look to develop more plant-based products that look and taste similar to meat.
The Washington D.C.-based Good Food Institute says 12 states have enacted what it calls “meat label censorship.” Those states are Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Last year, Missouri was sued by the Oregon-based Tofurky Co., which makes vegetarian food products, the Good Food Institute and the ACLU of Missouri over that state’s law which made it a misdemeanor to label plant-based products as meat.
“These laws are anti-competitive and anti-consumer, not to mention unconstitutional,” said Michele Simon, a lawyer and executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association.
No confusion here
At Todd’s Big Star in Tupelo, store manager Joey Cole doesn’t foresee any problem with the store’s customers figuring out what’s “real” and what’s not.
“We don’t have a lot of people asking for vegan or vegetarian foods, but we have ordered for customers who want it,” he said. “Anytime we’ve just had some in the store, it’s usually gone bad and we have to throw it out. But no, we’ve never had anybody confused about the labeling.”
Lori Culp thinks the law is nonsensicle as well.
She and her husband have been plant-based consumers for nearly a decade, and said the law makes it harder for those like her who want to have healthier alternatives in their diet.
Jeanne Cooper, who isn’t a vegan or vegetarian, said she doesn’t understand the fuss, either.
“I mean, it’s clearly marked on the package that it’s a veggie burger or whatever,” she said. “You go to Kroger and all that stuff is in the vegetarian section, and at Walmart its under the sign that says ‘Healthy Meals.’ If you get confused whether it’s meat or not, that’s kind of on you, I think.”
And opponents of the law say it brings in confusion where there was none before.
Upton’s Naturals and PBFA sued Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson over the state’s new regulation.
Gipson, according to Bloomberg, said, “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.”
And Jessica Almy of the Good Meals Institute said the Mississippi law is “an amazing overstep of state powers” and predicted it might be overturned.
“We are optimistic that the federal court, which is required to uphold the U.S. Constitution, will agree with the plaintiffs that this law is an unconstitutional attempt to censor commercial speech and harm the free market,” she said.
The Mississippi law says, “No item or product subject to this article shall be sold or offered for sale ... under any name or other marking or labeling which is false or misleading, or in any container of a misleading form or size, but established trade names another marking and labeling and containers which are not false or misleading and which are approved by the commissioner, are approved.”
The law goes on to say that the commissioner – referring to the Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce – can implement the ban on anything he finds violating the law. Companies disagreeing have 30 days to appeal the decision.
The details of how the department will inspect the “meatless” items and any other penalties have yet to be determined.