ACLU sues Arkansas for outlawing terms ‘veggie burger’ and ‘almond milk’

Where’s the beef? Not in this plant-based burger that ‘bleeds’

A butcher, a cardiologist, a vegan and a technology reporter try the Impossible Burger, a plant-based hamburger that “bleeds,” made by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods.
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A butcher, a cardiologist, a vegan and a technology reporter try the Impossible Burger, a plant-based hamburger that “bleeds,” made by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods.

Veggie burgers might get a lot more expensive in Arkansas this week.

A new state law going into effect Wednesday will slap a $1,000 fine on each food product advertised or packaged as meat that is plant- or cell-based, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit on Monday to challenge the law on behalf of Tofurky, an Oregon company that makes a vegetarian turkey replacement.

The law doesn’t stop at veggie burgers and imitation turkey: Products as diverse as almond milk, cauliflower rice and tofu dogs also break the new rule and will incur fines because they lack dairy, rice or meat — and labeling those targeted products as “veggie,” “vegan” or “plant-based” doesn’t shield them from breaking the new law, the ACLU of Arkansas said in a news release.

The ACLU’s federal lawsuit accuses the state of violating First Amendment free speech rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, and asks the court to declare the new rules unconstitutional.

“Not only is Arkansas’ latest law absurd and unnecessary, it’s also unconstitutional,” ACLU staff attorney Brian Hauss wrote in a blog post. “It violates the First Amendment by censoring truthful speech in order to protect the economic interests of the meat industry.”

The ACLU argues that there’s no evidence today’s labels are confusing or misleading shoppers.

“The only confusion here seems to be on the part of the Arkansas legislature, which seems to have forgotten its responsibility to its constituents in its rush to pass an unconstitutional law at the behest of its special interest donors,” Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said in a statement released by the ACLU. “What’s really going on here is that the state of Arkansas is seeking to limit access to healthier, more sustainable food choices for its constituents, and it is doing so to benefit the animal agriculture industry.”

But at least one Arkansas legislator still isn’t buying what Tofurky is selling.

State Rep. David Hillman, one of the new law’s sponsors, said it’s simply a matter of appropriate labeling, according to NBC News.

“You can’t sell a Chevy and call it a Cadillac,” Hillman said, according to NBC, asking, “How can you can have a more inaccurate description than calling something ‘meat’ when it’s not ‘meat’?”

Hauss wrote that the state’s law would force companies producing plant-based imitation meat to do verbal gymnastics to describe their products.

“Consumers know that ‘peanut butter’ is not made from cows, but the product’s name efficiently informs them that it spreads like butter,” Hauss wrote. “If companies are forced to describe their products as ‘savory plant-based protein,’ consumers are likely to be much more confused about exactly what it is they’re putting on their plates. And that’s the real purpose of these label censorship laws: creating confusion to protect favored economic interests.”

Arkansas isn’t alone in targeting copycat meat: The ACLU said the state’s law is “substantially similar to meat-labeling censorship laws recently passed in Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Dakota, and other states” — many of those states also facing lawsuits.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.