LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Tofurky Co., which produces plant-based alternatives to meat, filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday claiming an Arkansas law that bans the use of "meat" in the labeling of its products violates free speech rights.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Oregon-based company against Arkansas' Bureau of Standards. Tofurky produces tofu, quinoa and other plant-based "sausages," deli slices and burgers.
The stated goal of the Arkansas law set to take effect Wednesday is to "require truth in labeling." It would fine companies up to $1,000 for each violation. It also bans companies from labeling other vegetables, such as cauliflower, as "rice." Arkansas is the nation's top rice producer.
Broadly written, the law specifically prohibits labeling a product as meat, rice, beef, or pork, as well as any term "that has been used or defined historically in reference to a specific agricultural product."
Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said that consumers have been "successfully navigating" plant-based products for years, and that traditional meat producers are feeling threatened by the recent rise in demand for such foods.
State Representative David Hillman, a rice farmer and the law's author, said companies labeling products as cauliflower rice or veggie burgers are trying to confuse consumers.
Producers "realize the only way they can get people to try their product is to confuse them," Hillman said. Athos called this idea "absurd."
Hillman, a Republican, said he's tried cauliflower rice.
"I like it. There's nothing wrong with it. Except that it's not rice," he said.
The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based alternatives to meat, joined the ACLU and the Animal Legal Defense Fund in filing the suit on Tofurky's behalf. Jessica Almy, the group's policy director, said the law's true aim is to protect meat producers. The First Amendment protects the companies' use of terms like "plant-based meat" or "veggie burger," because it's truthful labeling, Almy said.
Such companies want consumers to know the products are made from plants, she said.
"Producers have every incentive to make that meaning clear to consumers, and there's absolutely no evidence of consumer confusion," she said. "So while these laws are being put forward as 'truth in labeling' laws they're really about censorship."
Meat producers nationwide have been lobbying to protect labeling from plant-based and meat grown by culturing animal cells, arguing for terms like "synthetic meat," ''meat byproduct" or even "fake meat."
In addition to Arkansas, The Good Food Institute has said eleven other states — Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming — have enacted what it calls "meat label censorship" laws.
In the Arkansas lawsuit, Tofurky argues that in order to comply with the law, the company must now design specific, Arkansas-compliant packaging, change the packaging nationwide, stop selling in the state or knowingly break the law.
"Each of these options puts Tofurky Co. at a significant commercial disadvantage," the company writes.
The state's attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, is "reviewing" the lawsuit to determine her next steps, a spokeswoman said.
Tofurky filed a lawsuit in 2018 against a Missouri law, which makes it a misdemeanor to label plant-based products as meat. This month, Illinois-based Upton's Naturals Co. challenged a Mississippi law.