Meatless Burgers; Meaty First Amendment Issues

If you’re a health-conscious American, your summer cookouts may feature veggie burgers or vegan hotdogs along with the more traditional meaty offerings. But a new law in Mississippi threatens to destroy the market for these meat alternatives by making it illegal for vegetarian and vegan food manufacturers to use the name of any meat or meat product in their labelling.

That’s right: Mississippi wants to stop businesses from being able to call a meatless patty a veggie burger. This ban will have a devastating effect on companies like Upton’s Naturals, a Chicago-based manufacturer of vegan foods. Upton’s Naturals markets its products toward consumers who are specifically looking for alternatives to meat. Not surprisingly, then, Upton’s Naturals’ labels clearly disclose that their products are 100% vegan, while also using terms that let customers know what their products substitute for, such as “burger” and “bacon.” But under Mississippi’s new law, which went into effect in July, these and other similar labels are now illegal.

Although pitched as a consumer protection measure, nobody who buys Upton’s Naturals’ products thinks they’re buying meat. Instead, they seek out these products because they want to enjoy a tasty burger without compromising their health goals or ethical values by eating meat.

The real reason for Mississippi’s law is obvious: Meat producers and the cattle lobby are feeling the pinch of competition as consumers seek out alternatives to beef and pork, and they want to insulate themselves from their competitors. But the government has no business keeping consumers in the dark—or prohibiting the use of terms that consumers actually understand—in order to protect special interests from honest competition.

Mississippi’s ban on meat or meat-related words on the labels of meatless foods violates the right to free speech. Under the First Amendment, commercial advertising that is not false or inherently misleading enjoys substantial constitutional protection. Laws restricting this type of speech will only be upheld if the government can produce actual evidence that the laws address a real problem and burden no more speech than necessary to address that problem.

Here, there is nothing misleading about Upton’s Naturals’ use of terms like “bacon” and “burger.” Nobody thinks that vegan bacon comes from an animal. Simply put, context matters. People shopping for meat substitutes know that what they’re buying doesn’t come from animals—after all, it says right there on the box that Upton’s Naturals’ products are “100% Vegan.”

That’s why, the day after Mississippi’s law went into effect, Upton’s Naturals and the Plant Based Food Association teamed up with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit challenging Mississippi’s unconstitutional attempt to ban their advertising. Their case is just the latest in IJ’s nearly 30-year history of protecting the right of individuals and businesses to advertise their goods and services free from unreasonable government regulation. And with the support of readers like you—carnivore, herbivore, and omnivore alike—IJ looks forward to taking a big bite out of government censorship in the Magnolia State.

Paul Sherman is an IJ senior attorney.

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.