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Plant-Based Food Company In Sonoma Sues State Over Using Term 'Butter'

PETALUMA (KPIX 5) -- A North Bay vegan foods business is suing California food regulators after being told it cannot use the word "butter" on its packaging.

At Miyoko's Creamery in Petaluma, they're producing butter and cheese from plants.  But according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, that's not what they're doing at all.

Miyoko Schinner is on a roll. Her company turns cashews, oats and legumes into items that taste just like dairy products. Her best-selling vegan butter just got picked up by Costco and her company is doubling in sales each year.

So she was surprised when she got a letter from the Department of Food and Agriculture saying she should stop calling her vegan butter butter.

"When I saw that letter I actually burst out laughing," Miyoko said.

The letter says a product cannot be called butter unless it is made exclusively from milk or cream. Actually, there are lots of non-dairy products with "butter" in their names: peanut butter, almond butter, cocoa butter, body butter. There's even a product called "butt butter" to soothe cyclists who spend too much time in the saddle.

But the letter says Miyoko's packaging for her "Cultured Vegan Butter" is creating an "erroneous impression" with consumers.

"I don't think there's a single confused consumer out there," Miyoko said. "No more than a consumer is confused when they order almond milk.  They know it's not dairy milk. In fact, they're ordering almond milk because they don't want dairy milk!"

But the letter doesn't stop there. It also says the company must remove a website picture of a woman hugging a cow because it implies that's where the product came from. Miyoko believes this is simply a government agency trying to protect an industry that feels threatened by change.

"Yes, they're going to be threatened and they're going to try to challenge this," Miyoko said. "But the fact is there's a huge amount of consumers that are transitioning to a new food system."

"I don't see her product as a threat to the industry. I feel her messaging is a threat to the industry," said Jennifer Berretta.

She helps operate the Berretta Family Dairy in Santa Rosa. She believes Miyoko's goal it to put an end to the dairy business altogether, a fact that Miyoko, an animal rights activist, doesn't deny. Berretta says in this battle, words matter. And that's why her industry feels protective about words such as "butter" and "milk."

"We're not trying to control," she said. "We're just making what the definition is fit. And "milk"…the definition is from a mammal."

So far, Miyoko's hasn't changed their packaging, instead filing a lawsuit against the state for violation of freedom of speech.

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