JACKSON, Miss. – You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, but can you shout “meatless hot dogs” in the frozen food aisle of a Mississippi grocery store?
That is what a vegan food company wants a federal court to decide — kind of.
Upton’s Naturals and the Plant Based Foods Association is suing top Mississippi officials over a 2019 law that prohibits companies from using meat terminology when selling vegetarian and vegan products.
The law took effect Monday, and violators could face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
“Thankfully Mississippi has not started to enforce that ban yet,” attorney Justin Pearson said at a press conference Tuesday. “But we have filed that lawsuit to hopefully prevent that from ever happening.”
See the list: New laws took effect July 1 in Mississippi
Supporters said it doesn’t stop anyone from making or selling meat-like vegan foods; it only makes them tell the truth about what they’re selling.
Opponents said the meat industry got the bill passed to stifle competition. They say the ban on selling “veggie burgers” violates their First Amendment right to free speech.
The lawsuit names Gov. Phil Bryant and Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Andy Gipson as defendants.
New law will create confusion, plaintiff says
Standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in Jackson, Pearson said he hopes a judge will issue a preliminary injunction, temporarily halting the law from being enforced.
“People understand that foods labeled as ‘meatless’ do not contain meat. Customers seek out these foods specifically because they are vegan,” Pearson said. “However, for sellers of vegan foods it is extremely helpful to explain to customers the characteristics of the foods using meat-product terms.”
Dan Staackmann, found of Upton’s Naturals, said there’s never been any confusion about his company’s products.
“We have not had a single complaint from any consumers about any kind of misconception about what our products are,” he said.
Staackmann said his company’s foods are in major retailers such as Whole Foods and Target as well as independent stores, though he’s not sure how the ban will play out in Mississippi.
“Let’s face it, there are not a lot of outlets for our types of products in the state,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, the 2019 law forbids sellers of plant-based foods from using the following phrases: “vegan burgers,” “meatless hot dogs,” “vegan bacon,” “meatless meatballs,” “vegan chorizo” and “meatless steaks.”
The lawsuit said that Upton’s Naturals has been selling a variety of plant- and fruit-based foods since 2006 and its products have become popular throughout the country.
Upton’s “proudly” marks its products as vegan, the lawsuit said, and no reasonable customer would be misled by the term “vegan bacon.”
The lawsuit said the new law will force Upton’s and other companies to change their packaging and will create consumer confusion.
The law gives authority to the Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, to order a person or company to change its labeling if she or he believes a product is falsely claiming to be meat.
The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, a national group, and the Mississippi Justice Institute, which is the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank that pushes for free markets and limited government.
Lawmakers in Missouri passed a similar measure in 2018 and also led to a lawsuit. The Associated Press reported in June that settlement talks were ongoing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.