Missouri first U.S. state to ban word "meat" on anything but animal flesh

As federal regulators consider banning use of the word "milk" from nut-based alternatives, Missouri this week became the first state in the U.S. to prohibit the term "meat" in vegan and other plant-based substitutes.

The law, which took effect Tuesday, bars food manufacturers from representing a product as meat if it is "not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry. Violators are subject to up to one year in prison and a fine of as much as $1,000. 

The measure was supported by the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, which cited consumer confusion and a desire to protect ranchers as a reasons for the bill. 

"This is about protecting the integrity of the products that farm and ranch families throughout the country work hard to raise each and every day," Mike Deering, the cattle group's executive vice president said earlier this year in a statement commending the legislation. "I never imagined we would be fighting over what is and isn't meat. It seems silly. However, this is very real and I cannot stress enough the importance of this issue."

The cattle group is especially concerned about attempts at "clean meat," which is produced by animal cells grown in a lab, and supports a proposal that would have the U.S. Department of Agricultural in charge of regulating the industry. The trade association is also lobbying for a federal law akin to Missouri's measure.

Tofurky strikes back

The developments are not going down well with proponents and makers of plant-derived food. Tofurky -- the maker of burgers and sausages made from plants -- has joined forces with civil liberties and animal activists in filing a lawsuit to block the Missouri law.

In the injunction filed Monday in a Missouri federal court, Tofurky and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the state had not heard complaints from consumers confused about the phrase "plant-based meats." Preventing food makers from using the term violates their First Amendment rights, the company and ACLU claimed. Besides, the word "meat" has for years been used to refer to the edible portions of fruits and nuts, the suit said.

"Missouri is putting its thumb on the scale to unfairly benefit the meat industry and silence alternative producers," Stephen Wells, the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. "This law violates various constitutional principles, including free speech – which should be a concern for everyone, regardless of diet."