Alternative proteins have faced labeling challenges since their inception. The traditional meat industry has continued to ramp up its use of lobbyists to prevent alternative meat producers from infringing on its markets.
The most common tactic is to prevent the use of meat-related words to describe any nonanimal product. Most of these laws cite misleading claims and confusion from consumers. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas, laws have been passed in the name of preventing misleading labeling claims, which alternative meat producers are calling anti-market and anti-free speech. The Good Food Institute (GFI) and long-established plant-based meat producer, Turtle Island Foods (the owner of the “Tofurky” brand), have mounted legal challenges to these laws.
Use Case and Business Impact
Industry groups on both sides of the issue are arguing as to whether plant-based products using words traditionally associated with animal products such as “burger,” “sausage,” and “[chicken] nugget” are misleading to consumers. Plant-based food associations such as GFI and the Plant-Based Food Association argue that restricting the use of these words infringes upon plant-based food producers’ right to free speech. They believe that labels that do not deceive consumers should be able to use familiar language. Groups representing the meat industry, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have introduced legislation that would require meat analogs to be labeled as “imitation.” It backed the introduction of the “Real Marketing Edible Artificials Truthfully Act of 2019’’ and a similar act in Texas that failed to advance through the legislature.
These laws all face challenges in federal court, with most cases citing violations of the First Amendment. The U.S. FDA possesses the power to take action against producers that it believes use misleading labeling but has not done so in the case of plant-based meat. U.S. FDA has also not produced guidance on how plant-based foods should be labeled. “Labeling of Plant-Based Alternatives to Animal-Derived Foods; Draft Guidance for Industry” remains on the docket for food programs guidance. U.S. FDA expects to publish drafts of the guidance documents by December 2022, though the list is not binding.
As part of the Fiscal Year 2022 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food, and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, Congress specifically requested that U.S. FDA clarify labeling requirements for plant-based foods. While the agency has so far declined to intervene on the use of the word “milk” for plant-based beverages if the source is specified (e.g., almond, soy, oat, etc.), it remains to be seen if the guidance on plant-based milk labeling projected to be published in June 2022 maintains the status quo. Until then, case law has largely remained on the side of plant-based producers that have witnessed success in scaling back legislation or overturning laws in several states. U.S. FDA’s clarity is sorely needed, but the powerful lobbying efforts of meat industry groups may result in unexpected guidance language. It is imperative to monitor court proceedings, closely follow labeling developments from U.S. FDA, and submit comments through the agency’s website because until official guidance on labeling is provided, state-level laws will continue to be passed and challenged, furthering confusion for suppliers and consumers alike.