We all know that you can’t “milk” an almond, right? While that question might sound as absurd as dehydrated water, lawmakers in Arkansas are apparently less confident in consumers’ common sense.
In March, the Arkansas legislature passed a law prohibiting words like “meat,” “burger,” and “bacon” from being used to describe plant-based products. Any labeling that classifies meat substitutes or lab-grown meat products as “meat” will have to go. Instead of “veggie bacon,” shoppers in Arkansas may eventually see “savory plant-based crispy strips.”
As over-the-top as these restrictions may seem, Arkansas is not alone. Five other states have passed similar legislation in the name of preventing consumer confusion. However, Arkansas is the first to also include the word “rice” on its no-go list. That’s right, Arkansas has banned the term “cauliflower rice” from being used to reference the popular grain alternative.
Coincidentally (or perhaps, not so much) Arkansas is the biggest rice producer in the United States. Proponents of the law even admitted one of the purposes of the law was to protect agriculture producers in the state.
Plus, producers of meat alternatives have few options to get around these new rules. Even if a seller of meat-alternative products includes “veggie” or “plant-based” in their product description, the Arkansas rules still will not allow the use of meat-related descriptors.
Alternative meat company Tofurkey has already filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU.
It’s unlikely that many consumers have wondered which part of the pig veggie bacon comes from, so why all the ruckus? Many view the legislation as a response to an “imaginary crisis” that assumes consumers have been living under a rock. Skeptics of these laws have been quick to point out their absurdity.
In 2018, the Senate had to decide the fate of a dairy industry-requested study on the word “milk.” When introducing a proposal to end the program, Senator Mike Lee of Utah said: “No one buys almond milk under the false illusions that it came from a cow. They buy it because it didn’t come from a cow.”
In fact, ACLU legal director Holly Dickson argues the new labeling rules will actually confuse consumers more, telling CBS MoneyWatch: “Consumers need to know what the product is a substitute for.”
Add in the fact that plant-based alternatives are often kept in a separate section of grocery stores, and the new labeling rules appear even more superfluous. Not to mention, as the ACLU argues, potentially unconstitutional.
In a landmark 1975 case, the Supreme Court held that “commercial speech” is not wholly outside the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. When examining state law restrictions on advertisements by pharmacists, the court found that society generally has a keen interest in the “free flow of commercial information.” Therefore, speech does not lose its First Amendment protection simply because a company spends money to project it.
Advocates for meat alternative companies argue that Arkansas’ law violates the First Amendment by improperly censoring truthful speech. Labeling a product as “veggie bacon” lets consumers know that if they enjoy the salty crunch of bacon but are looking for a plant-based alternative, they are in the right place.