Amid growing debate over food identity standards, Missouri has become the first state to directly regulate whether meat substitutes can be labeled as “meat.” In August, Missouri passed Mo. Rev. Stat. § 265.494(7), which makes it a crime to misrepresent a product as meat that is not derived from livestock or poultry. Violators can be imprisoned for up to one year and fined up to $1,000.
The law targets two types of products: plant-based meat and cell-cultured meat (CCM). Plant-based meat is made from ingredients like soy, tempeh, and jackfruit. As we previously explained, CCM is grown in a lab by replicating animal cells. As the CCM industry is just emerging, the law most immediately affects sellers of plant-based products. But the law shows that the Missouri legislature may have anticipated labeling issues in connection with CCM and wished to take action in advance of the forthcoming changes to the market.
Already, though, the law is being challenged. Tofurky Company, a maker of plant-based meat products, and The Good Food Institute (GFI), a proponent of meat alternatives, have sued a class of all Missouri prosecutors who have enforcement power. Tofurky and GFI assert that the law criminalizes truthful speech and violates their First Amendment rights. Tofurky fears it may face prosecution for describing products as “veggie burgers,” “chorizo style sausages,” and “slow roasted chik’n.” Accordingly, it has asked the court to bar enforcement of the law until the suit is resolved.
In response, the State of Missouri—which intervened to defend the law’s constitutionality—argues that the meat labeling law “does not do what Tofurky fears it does.” Based on a filing in the litigation, the State’s position is that the law only prohibits false statements that confuse customers into believing meat substitutes are traditional meat products. Such false and misleading commercial speech is not protected under the First Amendment. The State says that sellers like Tofurky that use modifiers such as “veggie,” “vegan,” and “plant-based” on their labels are not in danger of prosecution.
This approach might be too lenient for some in the conventional meat industry. The U.S. Cattlemen Association, for example, has argued that substitutes should not be able to use “meat” and “beef” in their labeling.
Unless and until the court rules otherwise, products are required to comply with the law. The Missouri Department of Agriculture is in charge of administering the law, and starting this month, it may begin referring suspected violations to county prosecutors and the attorney general. The Department has issued guidance indicating that it will not refer products whose labels contain the following:
Prominent statement on the front of the package, immediately before or immediately after the product name, that the product is “plant-based,” “veggie,” “lab-grown,” “lab- created,” or a comparable qualifier; and
Prominent statement on the package that the product is “made from plants,” “grown in a lab,” or a comparable disclosure
We will continue monitoring the case and provide updates on further developments.