Have you ever eaten a veggie burger or munched on a vegan sausage? Yes? Well, I hope you’re sitting down. Because I’ve got some news that may be a little difficult to digest. That thing you ate wasn’t actually made out of meat. For years now, big veg has been using terms like “burger” and “sausage” to trick you into ingesting plants! Devilish, isn’t it?

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Arkansas certainly seems to think so. Earlier this year, the state passed a “truth in labelling” law, Arkansas Act 501, to “protect consumers from being misled or confused by false or misleading labeling of agricultural products that are edible by humans.” The main targets of this legislation are plant-based products; these will no longer be allowed to describe themselves as “burgers,” “sausage,” “milk” etc. Under the new law, each individual package incorrectly labelled as meat would be hit with a fine of up to $1,000.

Act 501 is scheduled to go into effect this week. On Monday, however, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Tofurky company filed a civil rights complaint arguing that the legislation is unconstitutional. It’s unclear whether a judge will suspend the law pending resolution of this complaint.

It’s easy to see why Tofurky is upset about the law, but what’s the ACLU’s beef? Well, they’re worried because it threatens free speech. The lawsuit argues that it constitutes a “restriction on commercial speech. It does nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information. Instead, it creates consumer confusion where none existed before in order to impede competition.”

As the Tofurky/ACLU complaint points out, the Arkansas law is clearly designed to protect the meat industry rather than consumers. After all, your brain would have to be made out of tofu to look at a veggie burger’s packaging and mistake it for something made out of animal. The clue is words like “veggie”, “plant-based” and “meatless”. As Brian Krauss, an ACLU attorney, said in a statement: “It’s absurdly patronizing that the government of Arkansas is asserting that the people of Arkansas can’t tell a veggie burger from a hamburger, or a tofu dog from a hot dog.”

Plant-based “meat” alternatives like the Impossible Burger have rocketed in popularity over the last few years. Veggie burgers used to be somewhat niche, but the new breed of meatless burgers have aggressively been targeting meat-eaters and the animal product industry clearly feels threatened. The rise in popularity of non-dairy milk also has the dairy industry running scared; according to a recent report by Mintel sales of plant-based milk grew over 60% between 2012 and 2017. Dairy milk sales dropped 15% during that same period. The response to consumers’ changing tastes has been a flurry of protectionist legislation. Mississippi and Missouri, for example, recently passed laws similar to Act 501; the legality of these has also been challenged. The Food and Drug Administration is also currently considering whether plant-based products should be allowed to use terms like “milk” and “cheese”.

It’s not just the meat and dairy industry that is worried about the rise of plant-based products, by the way. Arkansas is the biggest producer of rice in the United States and, surprise surprise, Act 501 is the only legislation of its type so far to include protections for rice. The Arkansas Rice Federation worked with the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association and other interest groups on Act 501, according to Arkansas Online, and the state law means “cauliflower rice” would be considered mislabeled. (I mean, to be fair, they may have a point there – that stuff is a crime against humanity.)

The flurry of protectionist legislation attempting to regulate plant-based products is a reminder that America’s much-vaunted free market economy isn’t really free. Instead of purely being driven by supply and demand, it’s manipulated by powerful corporations and industries. In his book Meatonomics, for example, David Robinson Simon argues that meat consumption has grown because of government subsidies and regulation that lets the industry keep prices artificially low. In a 2017 interview with the Guardian he notes that “if the industry were forced to cover its total costs, instead of imposing them on taxpayers, animals and the environment, a $4 Big Mac would cost about $11.” Speaking over email, Simon adds: “The animal agriculture industry is one of the most powerful special interests in the US, with a lobbying presence in every statehouse in the country and an enormous budget to influence laws and lawmakers everywhere. At the federal level this lobby spends more than $140m yearly and is routinely cited as one of the reasons why federal agricultural reform legislation almost never makes it out of committee.”

It’s too soon to know what will happen with Act 501; however it’s safe to say this won’t be the last attempt at legislating the life out of the booming plant-based food industry. Anyway, as we wait to see what happens, please do be careful with food labels. I’d hate for you to consume a canine-free “hot dog” or eat a hamburger and realize it didn’t contain any ham. Or, god forbid, chow down on a meat-free veggie burger.

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