A Juicy Legal Beef Over Okla. Meat Alternative Labeling Law

On September 16, in the Western District of Oklahoma, Upton’s Naturals Co. (Upton) and the Plant-Based Farmers Association (PBFA) cooked up a fresh legal beef with the State of Oklahoma to answer one question: Does the Constitution prevent states from passing laws to prevent meatless products from being labeled with meat-based adjectives without a disclaimer? The plaintiffs argued in the affirmative and filed a complaint to enjoin the enforcement of such a law in Oklahoma, arguing that the state’s Meat Consumer Protection Act’s (Act) mandate for a disclaimer on the labeling of vegan products described with meat-based adjectives restricted free speech in violation of the First Amendment.

Plaintiffs alleged that the Act passed in May 2020 following lobbying from meat-industry groups “to make it more difficult for sellers of meat alternatives to compete with the meat industry.” The Act, becoming effective on November 1, bars any labeling on plant-based products that “misrepresent() a product as meat that is not derived from harvesting…livestock” without a disclaimer on product packaging stating that “the product is derived from plant-based sources in type that is uniform in size and prominence to the name of the product.” This, averred the plaintiffs, means that the Act prohibits plant-based foods, sans disclaimer, from being labeled as burgers, hot dogs, chicken, pork, beef, meatballs, sausages, jerky, steaks, bacon, corned beef, or chorizo even if the packaging also labels products as “meatless,” “vegan,” or “plant-based.”

Upton proffered that the Act, if enforced, “will force (Upton) to stop advertising (and selling) its products in Oklahoma” as it would require the relabeling of numerous released products, including the vegan hotdog, “Updog,” and the meatless bacon macaroni and cheese, “Ch’eesy Bacon Mac,” despite the labeling on such products, including phrases like “Try All Our Great Vegan Products” and “Vegan For A Reason,” albeit in typeface smaller than the product name. This compulsory rebranding, claimed the plaintiffs, represents a “content-based regulation of speech” that ensures “if the Act goes into effect, it will chill (the plaintiffs’) speech.”

The First Amendment prohibits state laws that operate as content-based restrictions on speech, unless the state is able to “prove that the restriction furthers a (legitimate government) interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” The plaintiffs asserted that under this legal standard, the Act failed to pass constitutional muster as the “only interest furthered by the Act is economic protectionism, which is not a legitimate government interest.”

PBFA and Upton sought court costs, attorney’s fees, an injunction “prohibiting Defendants and their agents from enforcing the Act,” and a “declaratory judgment that, facially and as applied to Plaintiffs, the Act violates the First…Amendment….”

The plaintiffs are represented by Gable Law and the Institute for Justice.