As you’re no doubt aware, a bill passed by the Missouri legislature and signed into law back in May has now taken effect, prohibiting companies from “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”
For alt-meat marketers and their allies, that statement is like waving a virtual red flag in front of an animatronic bull.
Within days of the law becoming active, a group of plaintiffs that includes the Tofurky company, the Good Food Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit, seeking a preliminary injunction to stop enforcement of the new law and a permanent injunction declaring that the statute is unconstitutional.
In response, the Missouri attorney general issued a statement that the office “would seek to defend the constitutionality of state statutes.”
The impetus behind the law — which is a lengthy description of legal definitions related to agriculture and to the marketing of crops and food products — is to distinguish “conventional” meat and poultry products from the slew of new introductions variously labeled as meat or poultry “alternatives,” whether manufactured as plant-based analogs or via a process involving cell cultures.
For starters, the plaintiffs rolled out the free speech argument. To quote Fortune magazine: “The lawsuit hinges on the idea that the Missouri law infringes on First Amendment rights.”
That’s a red herring.
The ACLU might be onboard as defenders of the First Amendment, but make no mistake: The reason the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund joined the suit has nothing to do with free speech. For those organizations, it’s all about animal welfare, the idea that the success of alt-meat products would prevent the deaths of food animals.
Of course, the alt-meat category leaders like to leverage their credibility by noting that the U.S. market for non-meat analogs has grown to more than $669 million annually.
Fine, but do you know what Tyson Foods calls $669 million?
Same Argument, Different Context
Joking aside, the alt-meat category is certainly poised for serious growth in the years ahead, and in public statements the plaintiffs are signaling that their main argument will be that the Missouri law is an effort by Big Meat to “stifle competition” from a group of innovative upstarts.
It’s going to be difficult to sell that story.
Consider a couple of parallel scenarios involving descriptive product labeling.
For example: Would it be acceptable to allow fanciful labeling, such as “gasohol,” for automotive fuel? Would we motorists be okay with only an “assurance” from a company’s marketing team that the fuel in question is properly formulated? And would state or federal regulations specifying what can be sold as gasoline, ethanol or blends thereof be considered restraint of trade?
Or consider another product category: clothing fabrics. Would it be acceptable for manufacturers to market as “wool” clothing made from petrochemicals or plant-based fibers? After all, wouldn’t the argument be that the final product, though sourced differently, presents basically the same product features as the real deal? And if the manufacturers of actual wool products, which are marketed (and priced) based on the unique properties of animal fleece from sheep or goats, obtained regulatory protection from synthetics labeled as “wool,” would it seem plausible that they should face litigation seeking to overturn those regulations?
I believe the answers to those questions are self-explanatory.
The problem with overturning Missouri’s law is that a restraint of trade argument runs smack into standard of identity requirements. To forestall deceptive marketing practices, and to protect the health and safety of the public, government establishes — and enforces — legally binding definitions of the commodities considered to be essential components of the economy.
And we’re good with that. As consumers, we would object vociferously if some company marketed “alt-gas” motor fuel that didn’t provide the requisite chemistry to ensure proper vehicle performance. We love our cars, and if there was a risk of them being damaged from improper fuel, we’d demand that lawmakers “Do something about it!”
Is government oversight to ensure the integrity of the food supply any less important?
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.