New Oklahoma Plant-Based Labeling Law “Anti-Competitive”

Oklahoma City, OK—The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), Upton’s Naturals, and a founding board member of PBFA have teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal lawsuit challenging a new Oklahoma food labeling law as a violation of the First Amendment, according to a press release.

The Oklahoma Meat Consumer Protection Act takes effect November 1, 2020. It was introduced by Oklahoma State Senator Michael Bergstrom, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, and was stewarded through the Oklahoma Legislature by State Representative Toni Hasenbeck, a cattle rancher who is part of the Cattlemen’s Association.

The law requires companies to include a disclaimer on plant-based foods stating that the food is plant-based. The disclaimer, the press release says, must be as large and prominent as the product’s name. The press release notes that while other states have tried to make it illegal for plant-based foods to use terms such as “burgers” or “bacon,” this new law “attempts to make current labels illegal by micromanaging their content in a manner not seen anywhere else in the nation.” Upton’s Naturals labels all its food as 100% vegan, making it clear that the foods do not contain meat. Following this new law would require changes to the food labels that the company can’t afford.

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“Our labels make it perfectly clear that our food is 100% vegan,” said Upton’s Naturals founder, Daniel Staackmann in the press release. “But now our meat industry competitors in Oklahoma want to force us to redesign our labels as if our safe, healthy products are 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 already has a law prohibiting misleading labels,” said IJ Senior Attorney Justin Pearson. “But since the meat industry couldn’t use that law to thwart honest competition, they encouraged the Legislature to pass a new law. The First Amendment does not allow the government to compel speech just to protect special interest groups from competition.”

Michele Simon, Executive Director of PBFA, agreed that the law harms free market competition: “The plant-based meat category is on fire right now, with consumers demanding healthier and more sustainable options as alternatives to animal products. Oklahoma’s law, along with similar laws in several other states, is the meat lobby’s anti-competitive response to the increased consumer demand for plant-based options. Whatever happened to free market competition? We are proud to stand with Upton’s Naturals and the Institute for Justice to protect PBFA members’ First Amendment rights to clearly communicate to consumers.”

Simon expounded on that in a declaration submitted within the lawsuit: “It is highly likely that some PBFA members would withdraw their products from Oklahoma if the state’s new law went into effect… Plant-based meat alternatives are a growing segment of the food economy. PBFA works with many of the nation’s largest retailers, many of whom have outlets in Oklahoma. These retailers are very eager to sell more plant-based meat alternatives to Oklahoma residents. This law means that these and many other retailers, including many independent stores, may no longer be able to carry the many meat alternatives that consumers are increasingly demanding. To deny consumers these products will cause significant economic hardship to Oklahoma retailers, not to mention deprive many Oklahoma residents the options they are seeking.”

Upton’s Naturals, PBFA, and IJ have worked together in the past, challenging a 2019 Mississippi law that made it a crime for plant-based foods to use meat terms on their labels. Shortly after the trio filed a federal lawsuit, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture reversed course and proposed a new regulation allowing plant-based foods to continue using their original labels.