A new lawsuit filed by Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Good Food Institute on behalf of Tofurkey challenges a Texas law passed in May requiring plant-based and cultivated meat companies to include disclaimers on the front label of their products stating that the goods are not meat. The plaintiffs argue that the new requirements are so vague that companies can’t comply, potentially costing plant-based food producers millions of dollars in redesign expenses. The law went into effect this month, just days before the suit was filed.
This is not the first time Tofurky has turned to litigation to challenge laws that single out plant-based and other alternative protein companies. Similar laws in Louisiana and Arkansas were challenged and ultimately struck down or defined so narrowly that they were rendered effectively moot. Yet according to Amanda Howell, lead attorney on the case, the Texas law is a little bit different. How this suit plays out could have ramifications for the entire industry.
Earlier state laws set out to prevent plant-based and cultivated products from using words like sausage or burger on their packaging, but the Texas law takes a different approach by requiring disclosures “in prominent type equal to or greater in size than the surrounding type and in close proximity to the name of the product,” all to protect consumers. Because “close proximity” is not defined, the plaintiffs contend, the law is too vague for plant-based and cultivated companies to make changes and know whether a new label would actually comply.
Texas Law Reveals Shift to Consumer Protection Strategy
Texas lawmakers also opted for a different justification than other state lawmakers, arguing in favor of the law under the guise of protecting consumers from confusion rather than the business interests of livestock farmers.
The attorneys for Tofurky argue that framing is a sham, however. “Texas consumers are not confused about the foods they purchase, and this law does absolutely nothing to protect them,” Maddie Cohen, an attorney at Good Food Institute said in a statement.
To support the legislation, Texas officials pointed to a survey carried out by the Texas Farm Bureau and Texas Cattle Feeders Association which found that one in five Texans are confused by the labels of plant-based meat alternatives.
Howell is skeptical.The survey should be taken with a grain of salt, she says, as it was performed by the same organizations that lobbied heavily for the law, and it goes against previous studies that demonstrate consumers are not confused by the packaging of plant based products.
One such study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference earlier this year found that “adding ‘veggie’ or ‘soy’ on a package is enough to make consumers aware of the plant-based nature of a product.”
Texas Farm Bureau did not respond to Sentient Media’s request for comment.
According to Howell, plant-based and cultivated meat companies aren’t trying to trick anyone into buying their products, but if the law is held up in court then the consequences would be far reaching, due to its lack of clarity and more onerous requirements than federal labeling requirements.
Multiple federal courts have also found that consumers are unlikely to be confused by the packaging of plant based products. Suggesting that consumers would be so easily confused by labeling is “insulting to their intelligence”, said Tofurky’s CEO Jaimie Athos in the release.
Meat and Dairy Groups Push for State Labeling Laws
Though Howell believes that the legal team’s challenge — arguing the new law violates several legal clauses as well as the First Amendment — is a strong one, she worries that if the law isn’t struck down, operating as a plant-based company would become virtually impossible because if multiple states create unique laws they’d have to comply with “a patchwork” of different requirements.
The law singles out plant-based and cultivated companies, says Howell. Once products are picked up by distributors the producer loses control over where the product is being sold, but the company would still be at fault under the Texas law.
Howell argues that the law, and others like it, are thinly veiled attempts to put plant-based producers out of business. “These laws are not coming from people concerned about consumer confusion, they are coming from the meat industry,” she says. They’ve just figured out it’s smarter to focus on consumers than on agriculture producers.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.