Missouri Might Imprison You for False Meat Advertising

A state law says you can't call it meat unless it's actually beef, pork, or poultry. Critics say the bill violates the First Amendment.



Don't say it's meat if it doesn't come from an animal. If you do, you could face a hefty fine or even time behind bars.

That just about sums up a Missouri law that takes effect today. The first statute of its kind in the United States, the law bans companies from describing meat substitutes as meat. These products, to be clear, are invariably marketed as alternatives to eating animals; no one is trying to pass them off as actual beef or pork or poultry.

Violations of the new law are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a year in prison. The Missouri Department of Agriculture can't prosecute violators, but it can refer them to county prosecutors or the attorney general's office.

The legislation's foes include Tofurky, a company that uses tofu to make vegetarian meat alternatives. Yesterday, Tofurky filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri claiming the law violates the First Amendment. Tofurky's co-plaintiffs include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for plant- and lab-based food substitutes.

"Americans don't like censorship, and they don't like the government picking winners and losers in the marketplace," Good Food Institute Executive Director Bruce Friedrich said in a statement. "We're confident that the Court will overturn this anti-competitive and unconstitutional law." In their lawsuit, the groups say no consumers have complained to the state about being tricked by meat alternatives.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman explained in an April piece for Reason, the fight between the beef lobby and companies that make meat substitutes is playing out at the federal level as well. The beef lobby claims to be concerned that customers are being misled by false advertising. It argues that there should be federal regulations on how alternative meat companies market their products.

Similarly, the dairy industry successfully convinced the Food and Drug Administration and a majority of the Senate that milk isn't milk unless it comes from a cow.

As Chapman explained, "People buy almond milk not because they think it contains cow's milk but because they know it doesn't. They order veggie burgers in the happy knowledge that no hooved beast was harmed to make them. If you go online in search of vegetarian or vegan foods, you will find such websites as 'Fake Meats' and 'The Vegetarian Butcher.' They are not trying to fool anyone."

The beef and dairy industries aren't really worried about false advertising; they just want to stifle the competition. Fake meat can be delicious, and that apparently calls for a legislative fix.