Food Freedom

Mississippi Sued for Awful 'Veggie Burger' Ban

State lawmakers granted special marketing privileges to the animal meat industry

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Earlier this week the Institute for Justice (I.J.) filed a lawsuit in federal court in Mississippi seeking to overturn that state's unconstitutional new restrictions on the use of certain common terms to identify a variety of plant-based foods.

Mississippi's law dictates that a "plant-based…food product shall not be labeled as meat or a meat food product." While Mississippi claims the law is intended to clear up consumer confusion, it does nothing of the sort. "It doesn't matter if the product also states on the label that it's 100% vegan, plant-based or meatless," Bloomberg News reports.

If it's not intended to clear up confusion, then what's the point of this labeling mandate? Simple protectionism. The law, which was passed in March but took effect this week, is intended to protect makers of meat products (e.g., hamburgers) from competition from plant-based alternatives (e.g., veggie burgers) by barring the latter, for example, from using the term "burger" to refer to their veggie burgers. 

The list of people who are confused by, say, this hey-it's-vegan! burger, is so short as to be nonexistent. That's because, as you may have noticed, vegan food packaging is, like vegans, not exactly quiet about its vegan bona fides.

"Context matters," Justin Pearson, the I.J. attorney who filed the lawsuit, told me this week. "Under the First Amendment, businesses should be able to use almost any word they want, as long as consumers understand what they are saying. People know that vegan burgers do not come from cows. That is why they are called 'vegan.'"

The Mississippi law is one of several similarly awful ones around the country. I condemned a comparable Arkansas law in a column earlier this year, noting that "the only reason government cares a lick about this issue is that they are beholden to powerful agricultural interests that want to use the government to stifle competition from small-but-growing rivals." Last year I also blasted a similar Missouri bill.

"These laws are anti-competitive and anti-consumer, not to mention unconstitutional," says Michele Simon, a lawyer and executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), a membership group that's one of the plaintiffs in the case, in an email to me this week. "That is why PBFA has teamed up with our member Upton's Naturals and the Institute for Justice to sue Mississippi, not only to stop the law there, but to send a message around the nation that these efforts will be challenged."

Mississippi lawmakers would probably chafe at someone calling their new law a fine example of the nanny state. After all, several years ago, as I detailed cheerily, state lawmakers adopted what they dubbed an "anti-Bloomberg bill." That law forbade local governments from enacting local restrictions on food, including taxes on fast food or soda.

But Mississippi lawmakers are also the same people who adopted protectionist statewide restrictions on catfish marketing in 2015, which I noted at the time served no purpose but one: "If this sounds suspiciously like a protectionist measure, that's because it is."

What's more, though Mississippi lawmakers and regulators have positioned themselves as defenders of meat, their actions suggest otherwise—at least when it comes to meat from animals raised by small, local farmers in the state. As I detail in my recent book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, overbearing and unnecessary Mississippi food-safety rules mean that few if any small farmers in the state can sell steaks and other meat products at farmers markets there.

If left to its own devices—freed from the vice-like grip of Mississippi lawmakers and regulators—there's ample evidence the marketplace can sort all this out.

Last month, for example, fast food giant Arby's, which loudly proclaims itself to be home of "the meats," announced that it had created what may be the first meat-based plants. Their first offering? The "marrot," which is basically turkey that's been shaped and colored to look like a carrot. 

"[W]e said, 'If they can make meat out of vegetables, why can't we make vegetables out of meat?'" Arby's chief marketing officer Jim Taylor told Fast Company last week. Taylor says Arby's has applied for a trademark for the term "megetables," a portmanteau of "meats" and "vegetables."

Arby's also declared it would never, ever sell plant-based meat substitutes such as the meh Impossible Burger, which has gained a following at Burger King and other competitors. Why? Its customers want said meats.

While the marrot and megetables are just a marketing concept as yet, I must declare my love for what Arby's is doing: using the marketplace to innovate, differentiate, and reinforce its brand. That's exactly what PBFA members and other plant-based food producers are doing, too. They should be able to continue doing that without suing to protect their First Amendment rights. 

"Anyone who cares about the free market should find the Mississippi law and others like it very troubling," says the PBFA's Simon. "Our members are competing fair and square in the marketplace."

They are. And hopefully, the court will allow that competition to continue. 

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  1. I would bet good money that the number of people who are fooled into thinking that “vegan burgers” or “Garden Burgers” (the latter having been sold for over thirty years), is probably less than the number of people who think that a hamburger contains “ham.”

    1. Steamed ham, no less (at least in Albany).

    2. No kidding, when I was a kid I actually met a grown woman who tried to tell me hamburgers were made of ham. Nice lady but she also cited the Bible as irrefutable evidence that Moses met a dinosaur.

    3. Wait, it doesn’t? I thought hamburgers do contain ham, but the popular myth is that ham comes from hamsters.

  2. As opposed to the glorious state of Florida, which prohibits labeling milk from which the fat has been skimmed as “skim milk”, unless artificial vitamins are added.

    1. One 8oz glass of fat-reduced bovine lactate emulsion gives Florida Man the strength to fight off the feral pythons.

    1. Except the term “burger” is not beef nomenclature. It’s sandwich nomenclature. Have they called for outlawing turkey burgers too?

      1. “Except the term “burger” is not beef nomenclature. It’s sandwich nomenclature”

        And who made you the arbiter of that for anyone other than you?

        1. We’ve had soy burgers and turkey burgers and buffalo burgers for decades, and now fake meat non-meat burgers. The term is in common parlance, a ground-up patty of edible material for consuming in a bun.

          1. I’m ok with a law that requires fake meat burgers be called ‘bitch burgers’

          2. Cluestick. Soy burgers are fake meat non-meat burgers.

            Sorry, soy bourghers for those of you in Missississippi.

        2. In the American southwest, I was once told that if it’s called just a “burger”, it may have neighed. If it mooed, it’s a “hamburger”, and that has nothing to do with ham, but is named after Hamburg in Germany.

          But most uses of “burger” are with a specific descriptor: buffalo burger (I’ve been eating those for 55 years), turkey burger, venison burger, or even veggie burger.

      2. Any burger that doesn’t come from Hamburg, Germany should be outlawed

        And don’t even get me started on all these supposed Berliners and Frankfurters they sell around here…

        1. Nicely done, Kevin.

      3. They should ban them along with turkey bacon. Yuk!

        1. While I agree turkey bacon is horrible, I wouldn’t want to live in a country where horrible food can legally be banned.

    2. Beef and/or pork???? Isn’t “hamburger” itself false advertising — there’s no ham in there.

  3. State lawmakers granted special marketing privileges to the animal meat industry

    As opposed to the Human meat industry.

    1. Um… Humans are animals.

  4. People know that vegan burgers do not come from cows.

    Somebody doesn’t know a thing about Mississippi. They have no idea the label says “vegan”.

  5. Milk does not necessarily have to come from a mammal and really refers to any edible opaque white liquid. In the same way a burger does not have to be made of meat and can be any food in patty form in some sort of sandwich configuration.

    1. “Milk does not necessarily have to come from a mammal”

      Wrong.

      “and really refers to any edible opaque white liquid.”

      OK now all your posts make sense, you eat glue.

      1. You can’t pass as gay because you’re a disgusting slob nobody would mistake for gay, right?

        Why are you being so unpleasant? Oh yeah, you’re you. But why are you agreeing that governments should be able to tell food makers what to call their product?

        1. Aww Esmeralda don’t be sad cuz I outed your sock. Be sad that you’re a garbage human.

          1. I never use socks you ridiculous homebound Hoarders reject. Unlike you, the person who’s saying it’s bad to use socks.

      2. Two words: Coconut milk… Another two words: Almond milk. Seems you’re wrong Sir.

    2. Seems like your ok with selling semen labeled milk

    3. Pigeons produce a sort of milk in their crop to feed their squabs. That’s bird milk for ya.

      1. What? No mention of crow’s milk?

  6. Veggie burgers are awful, I’m just surprised to see Reason editorialize in every single headline

    1. Editorializing is what good waffles do

    2. Veggie burgers are awful, but that’s no reason to ban them.

      Were the Reason editors aware of the ambiguity in their headline?

  7. This isn’t corporate favoritism, it’s portmanteau scolds. Enjoy your staycations while they last.

    1. Wow, and you call others tedious…

  8. The only thing worse than tricking a vegan into eating meat is to fool me into not eating it.

    1. Agreed. Followed closely by asking me if I want bacon and then serving me thin strips of processed turkey. W.T.F.

      1. “Turkey bacon is not bacon but it ain’t none of my business to do anything about that” was going to be my campaign slogan for the LP 2020 nomination.

        1. It is not but not a bad food in itself. It tends to be a little sweeter and softer a decent alternative to what Americans call bacon.

          What the Canadians call it is an abomination.

          I have not tried the veggie burgers. I have made grilled portobello sandwiches before. You can make that like a burger.

          Concerning labeling Jews have wrangled about what is kosher forever. Kosher salt? There is no such thing. All pure salt is kosher it comes to mean coarse ground salt which was used to kosher the meat to remove blood. Kosher pickles are a variety of pickles just as polish or other styles. Same with kosher salami or hot dogs. Some brands are not strictly kosher. It is a style of making sausages or salami using beef instead of pork which has some very interesting history for foodies.

          Besides nobody has answered the question of when exactly does a cucumber become a pickle.

  9. But America needs protectionism…. After all, it is part of the American dream. Right? How else will the politicians get their kickbacks from businesses seeking to stifle all competition? Er… Obviously, when I say “kickbacks,” I clearly mean political donations, of which would only ever be spent on campaigning, and never for personal enrichment, natch. Gawd bless America!

  10. I am not in favor of this law, but how can it be anticompetitive if meat substitutes are not in competition with meat products?

    1. But they are. Everything is in competition with everything else at some level. Certainly two food products have a fairly high XED — especially food products that are literally “substitutes” for each other.

      1. The problem with their logic is that they think these vegetarians will eat beef if they can’t eat veggie burgers, which is a ridiculous argument. If anything, they should be encouraging this, so that the meateaters among us with vegeterian friends/relatives have an easy way to allow the vegeterians to eat with us. We are more likely to forgo grilling if we don’t have an easy substitute.

  11. I say we stop calling authoritarian states “nanny” states, since they’re not real nannies and the term might stop skilled home child caregivers from achieving gainful employment with millionaires.

  12. Folks that believe that if you say you’re a non-citizen on your census form you’ll be deported will believe that a vegan burger is beef.

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  14. Maintaining standards is a core function of government. Requiring actual meat in a product labeled “meat” or “meat food product” seems like rational policy.

    And the comment: “It doesn’t matter if the product also states on the label that it’s 100% vegan, plant-based or meatless,” is a strawman position, because the law doesn’t effect that label at all.

    It’s a pretty common sense position that labeling something as both “meat” and “vegan” is confusing. This has less to do about protectionism for the meat industry as it is Reason arguing for protectionism for the vegan industry.

    Though my preferred position would be for some one to bring a class action suit against any manufacturer that uses misleading labeling like this and let a Mississippi jury decide if it’s justifiable.

    1. I have it from credible sources that, back in the 9th century in Western Europe, with the rising popularity of almond milk — at that time a trendy import from the Middle East — that there was much discussion about the proper labeling of such because some people were very confused….. (sarc font off)

    2. Please show me the vegan product that labels itself as meat.

    3. “Maintaining standards is a core function of government.”
      No it isn’t.

      “Requiring actual meat in a product labeled “meat” or “meat food product” seems like rational policy.”
      No it doesn’t.

      “It’s a pretty common sense position that labeling something as both “meat” and “vegan” is confusing”
      It isn’t common sense at all because it isn’t confusing at all.

      “Though my preferred position would be for some one to bring a class action suit against any manufacturer that uses misleading labeling like this and let a Mississippi jury decide if it’s justifiable.”
      It isn’t misleading, so there is no basis for a lawsuit except for lawyers to make money.

    4. Having bought and eaten these veggie “burgers,” they do not label themselves as meat at all. They label themselves as veggie burgers, not as meat.

      Here’s a link to a label to a veggie burger.
      http://smartlabel.kelloggs.com/Product/Index/00028989100689

  15. The Mississippi definition of “meat food product” basically boils down to whatever “the commissioner” says it is:
    “(g) The term “meat food product” means any product capable of use as human food which is made wholly or in part from any meat or other portion of the carcass of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats, excepting products which contain meat or other portions of such carcasses only in a relatively small proportion or historically have not been considered by consumers as products of the meat food industry, and which are exempted from definition as a meat food product by the commissioner under such conditions as he may prescribe to assure that the meat or other portions of such carcasses contained in such product are not adulterated and that such products are not represented as meat food products. This term as applied to food products of equines shall have a meaning comparable to that provided in this paragraph with respect to cattle, sheep, swine, and goats.”
    https://law.justia.com/codes/mississippi/2016/title-75/chapter-35/article-1/section-75-35-3/

  16. The “ham” in “hamburger” is just a shortening of “human”. Hamburgers are people!

  17. Show me a person who is confused by the labeling of a vegan product, thinking that it is meat, and I’ll show you a person for whom this is the least of their problems in life.

    1. This is same as the silly almond milk/soy milk vs cow milk argument. Nobody who buys almond or soy milk think that it comes from a cow. Same with the vegetarian “burgers.” Nobody thinks it comes from a cow. Anybody that likes to eat cow meat is not going to want a veggie burger (or a turkey burger for that matter). Just silliness because meat producers think they are losing market share, and want to use government regulations to help their industry. This is part of the evil of regulation. It allows companies to pervert regulation for their own business interests.

  18. One dude on Twitter is the cite link for a “meh” review of the impossible burger? It has sold out the wazoo so I think the market has a little different review than one dude’s “meh.”

    I love Arby’s counterattack approach and may go seek out some megetables. Humor is the way to go.

    I listened to a very long joint interview on BBC Radio this weekend with a guy from The Meat Council (or whatever they call themselves) and a French guy who makes vegan products. The Meat Council guy was as dumb as you would expect someone who works for The Meat Council to be — his repeated line was something like, “why don’t you be original, call your stuff something other than sausage or burgers or meat, those are our words?” Um — how about because I don’t want to and you don’t own the words, you motherfucker? The French was predictably much more wimpy and didn’t make his points very strongly.

    Seems to me this is already covered by trademark law — if something is unique enough to be trademarked, then vegans can’t use it; if not, bombs away.

  19. “Awful ‘Veggie Burger’

    I agree with this . Veggie burgers are awful.

  20. I am ok with the burger thing.

    Yesterday I saw at the grocery some sort of dried mushroom thing advertised as “jerky”.

    Now that is just taking it too far.

    1. Tell your mommy.

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  23. […] The state of Mississippi is being sued for enacting an unconstitutional law — one that prevents certain food companies from labeling their products in a way that limits customer confusion. The Institute for Justice — representing Upton’s Naturals Co. and the Plant Based Foods Association — is seeking an injunction blocking the law from taking effect and taking away a bit of the First Amendment with it. (via Reason) […]

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