Tofurky and ACLU cook up suit against Arkansas law banning 'veggie burger' labels

“You can’t sell a Chevy and call it a Cadillac,” an Arkansas legislator who sponsored the bill told NBC News on Monday.
Image: Two Beyond Meat patties cook on a skillet in Brooklyn on June 13, 2019. Beyond Meat is a producer of plant-based meat substitutes.
Two Beyond Meat patties cook on a skillet in Brooklyn on June 13, 2019. Beyond Meat is a producer of plant-based meat substitutes.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By Ben Kesslen

Tofurky and the American Civil Liberties Union have cooked up a lawsuit to fight an Arkansas law that prohibits the labeling of plant-based meat alternatives as “burgers” or “hot dogs.”

The complaint, filed Monday in the Eastern District of Arkansas, Western Division, alleges that Arkansas Act 501, which is meant to “require truth in labeling” and “protect consumers from being misled or confused,” violates Arkansans’ civil rights.

Under Act 501, which was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March and goes into effect this month, Arkansans must say goodbye to products labeled as veggie burgers, smoked ham-style plant-based deli slices and vegan sausages. The state is charging a $1,000 civil fine for every plant-based product labeled as "meat."

The law also extends to dairy alternatives and vegetable alternatives to grains; nut milks and cauliflower rice would also be subject to fines (riced cauliflower is fine, though).

In their complaint, the ACLU, which is suing the Arkansas Bureau of Standards, says the act is “specifically designed to disadvantage purveyors of plant- and cell-based meat,” and restricts companies like Tofurky from accurately describing their products.

The Arkansas Bureau of Standards did not return NBC News' request for comment.

Even more, the complaint, which was filed along with the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, claims there is no evidence that confusion exists among consumers around plant-based alternatives.

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Act 501 “does nothing to protect the public from potentially misleading information,” the ACLU says.

“When consumers choose plant-based foods, it is not because they are confused or misled, it is because they are savvy and educated about the health and environmental consequences of eating animal products,” Tofurky CEO Jaime Athos said in a statement provided to NBC News.

Arkansas state Rep. David Hillman, who sponsored the bill in the House, says companies like Tofurky are more than welcome to sell their products in his state, but they just need to be properly labeled.

“You can’t sell a Chevy and call it a Cadillac,” he said Monday.

Hillman says the ACLU’s argument that Act 501 will cause more confusion doesn’t add up. “How can you have a more inaccurate description than calling something 'meat' when it’s not 'meat'?” he asked.

The Arkansas law is one of a handful of plant-based meat alternative laws that have sprung up around the country. Missouri, Louisiana, South Dakota and Mississippi have similar statues on their books in what the ACLU says is an effort to protect the beef industry.

Brian Hauss, the ACLU staff attorney on the case, said companies often rely on comparisons to describe their products. Consumers, he says, know that peanut butter doesn’t come from cows.

Hauss thinks the Arkansas Legislature is manufacturing an “imaginary crisis” of consumer confusion, and thinks the law is a bit insulting to Arkansans.

“It's absurdly patronizing that the government of Arkansas is asserting that the people of Arkansas can't tell a ‘veggie burger’ from a ‘hamburger,’ or a ‘tofu dog’ from a ‘hot dog,” Hauss said in a statement.

Tofurky says Arkansas is not only trying to limit its free speech, but also the state residents' access to “healthier, more sustainable food choices.”

Hillman says he just doesn't want his constituents misled.

“They can go through with the lawsuit. I don’t think they have legal ground to stand on,” he said. “I am just trying to not cause confusion in the market.”

If companies like Tofurky made a product that “looks like steak and tastes like steak, and is half the price,” “I’m gonna eat it and enjoy it,” Hillman said ⁠— as long as it’s not called “steak.”