Non-meat food producers have beef with new state law

Rep. Toni Hasenbeck

OKLAHOMA CITY — Plant-based food producers are asking a federal judge to protect them from a new state law that imposes fines and jail time for selling alternative meat products in Oklahoma.

Plant Based Food Association and Upton’s Naturals Co. have sued Gov. Kevin Stitt and Blayne Arthur, state commissioner of agriculture, arguing the state’s new “Meat Consumer Protection Act,” which takes effect Nov. 1, treats healthy, vegan foods like cigarettes and alcohol.

The lawsuit alleges the state’s powerful meat-industry lobby pressed for House Bill 3806, making it more difficult for sellers of meat alternatives to compete in the rapidly expanding grocery sales sector.

The law prohibits sellers of planted-based foods from using meat terms to describe their products, unless they include a disclaimer — in the same size and prominence as their product name — that their items are non-animal product alternatives. Penalties for violating the law include fines up to $10,000 per offense and up to a year in jail, the lawsuit alleges.

Chicago-based Upton’s said it will no longer be able to sell meatless products in Oklahoma if the law stands. The company does not want to redesign its labels with Oklahoma’s new disclaimer, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that Oklahomans are savvy enough to differentiate between meat that comes from a cow, pig or chicken and plant-based alternatives.

The new law applies to burgers, hot dogs, meatballs, jerky, sausages, chorizo, steaks, bacon, corned beef and chicken. It forbids plant-based foods from being labeled as “meat” without the disclaimer — even if they’re already labeled “meatless,” “vegan,” or “plant-based,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Our labels are perfectly clear that our food is 100% vegan,” said Daniel Staackmann, the founder of Upton’s Naturals. “But now our meat industry competitors in Oklahoma want to force us to redesign our labels as if our safe, healthy products were potentially harmful. It’s not the first time we’ve had to fight a state law created by our competitors, and we look forward again to defending our First Amendment right to clearly communicate with our customers.”

Oklahoma is the only state requiring plant-based foods to contain labels “uniform in size and prominence” to their product names, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman for Stitt, who signed the measure into law, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

A spokesman for the Attorney General Mike Hunter said his office had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit Friday morning.

“Oklahoma is treating safe and healthy plant-based meat alternative like they are cigarettes,” said Milad Emam, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. “This new law won’t tell consumers anything they don’t already know, but it will have a devastating effect on vegan and vegetarian food companies, since their perfectly honest and understandable labels will now be illegal in Oklahoma. This law, which was passed to prevent competition with the meat industry, clearly violates the First Amendment.”

The lawsuit seeks a temporary and permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of the act on the grounds that it violates the First and 14th Amendments. The litigants also are seeking an award of attorneys fees, costs and expenses.

The lawsuit alleges Oklahoma’s Cattlemen’s Association claimed it “brought” the measure to the Legislature, and one of the group’s members — state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin — sponsored it. The lawsuit notes Hasenbeck later received a “Legislative Appreciation Award” from the association for her work on the measure.

Hasenbeck, who is a cattle producer, said though the association approached her about running the bill, her family has been discussing the issue for about two decades.

Coincidentally, she spent Friday touring small meat processors.

“When you’re a part of the food process, it is very important to you that things are taken care of well,” she said. “We expect so much of our meat producers, and the consumer absolutely needs to know what they’re getting. I think truth in advertising and truth in food labeling is maybe one of the most important things that we provide for the consumer.”

She said even when things are properly labeled, sometimes people don’t understand what they’re eating.

“I don’t think you should have to read fine print in the grocery store to know what you’re getting,” Hasenbeck said.

She said she’s not concerned that the law will push business out of the state. There are plenty of companies that produce food and following new regulations is a cost of doing business.

“I don’t understand the argument that changing the label is too expensive for us to be in business,” Hasenbeck said.

The measure unanimously passed both chambers with bipartisan support.

Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association and Senate author Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, both did not respond to request for comment as of deadline.

An increasing number of consumers are looking for alternative options to animal products, said Michele Simon, executive director of Plant Based Foods Association, in a statement.

Good Food Institute, which focuses on alternatives to animal products, said U.S. grocery sales of plant-based foods increased 29% in the past two years. Sales have reached $5 billion.

The group reported the sale of plant-based milks grew by $2 billion in 2019. Plant-based meat sales increased by $939 million. The vegan “meat” category has grown 38% over the past two years.

And food choice advocates note that Oklahoma isn’t the first state to try to regulate plant-based food labeling.

Missouri and Arkansas have previously tried to make it illegal to use terms like “burgers” or “bacon” to describe meatless alternatives.

Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of those laws are ongoing.

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