Missouri law says fake meat should be labeled. How is that a free speech issue?

Will meat by any other name still appeal to consumers? A battle over whether fake meat must be labeled as such for consumers’ sake is intensifying, and a Missouri law sits squarely at the heart of the debate.

Last year, the state became the first in the nation to make it a criminal offense for businesses to misrepresent as meat a product that is not derived from livestock or poultry.

The law aims to limit confusion as consumers navigate grocery store aisles filled with a growing number of plant-based products and other meat alternatives that look a whole lot like traditional burgers, hot dogs, turkey and more. Violators face up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

Tofurky, a vegetarian food company, advocacy group Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri have filed suit, arguing that the First Amendment allows companies to label products as they see fit.

Free speech is not a license to mislead consumers. Missouri’s truth-in-advertising laws exists for a reason. If food is plant-based, companies should label it accordingly. No one should be left wondering what they’re consuming.

After months of negotiations, a settlement in the case appeared to be within reach earlier this year. Those talks stalled this month when attorneys from both sides told U.S. District Senior Judge Fernando Gaitan that they were unable to reach a final agreement.

The plaintiffs, citing a right to compete in the free market, had previously asked Gaitan to deem the law unconstitutional.

The impasse sets the stage for a lengthy legal fight, one that could have ramifications nationwide. Several states have followed Missouri’s lead in regulating packaging for meat alternatives.

This issue should not be complicated: Fake meat isn’t meat.

As an array of plant-based and clean-meat products gain popularity, consumers should know what, exactly, they’re eating. Companies such as Tofurky, Impossible Foods, which makes the Impossible Burger, and Beyond Meat, which developed the Beyond Burger, should be required to inform consumers that their products are derived from plants or non-traditional agriculture.

Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel to the North American Meat Institute, said a labeling law levels the playing field for cattle ranchers who are supportive of the rule.

The organization hasn’t taken sides on the issue, Dopp said, adding that the federal government defines meat as “the part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats, which is skeletal.” Terms such as “hamburger,” “sausage,” and “bacon” are also clearly defined.

“When it comes to labeling, the federal government has standards of identity,” Dopp said. “As long as a plant-based product doesn’t misrepresent itself as something that it is not — which is meat — let the market decide.”

Missouri’s law allows label qualifiers such as “plant-based” to precede “meat” terms.

Proponents of the labeling regulations correctly argue that labeling on plant-based meat alternatives is misleading and confusing to consumers. Opponents say the new meatless, plant-based alternatives are healthy competition for the cattle industry.

But plant-based burgers are not beef in the traditional sense. They should be regulated. And requiring the use of a “plant-based’” qualifier on packaging is simply a matter of truth in advertising.

The court will determine the merits of Missouri’s law. But properly labeling products doesn’t infringe on a company’s right to free speech or its ability to turn a profit. And bewildered consumers won’t be left asking, “Where’s the beef?”