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Question for you - does a vegan burger deserve to be called a burger? Lawmakers across the U.S. and in the European Union have argued that labels like these are misleading. Several states have passed laws that say foods made from plants should not use labels traditionally used for animal products. And now at least three lawsuits claim that these label laws violate the freedom of speech. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: In Cody Burkham's world, there's real meat and wannabe meat - meat from animals raised by farmers, and wannabe versions, made of plants that only wish they tasted as good as the real deal and should not be sold with labels traditionally associated with meat, like sausage, hot dog or burger.
CODY BURKHAM: You can't take a Buick, take the hood ornament off and slap a Porsche hood ornament on and try to sell that Buick as a Porsche. It doesn't work like that.
SELYUKH: Burkham is the executive vice president of the Arkansas Cattlemen's Association, which is why, to him, beef is the Porsche in the metaphor, being swindled by the vegetarian and vegan alternatives that are flooding stores and restaurants. And that's why his industry group was a big supporter of a new law in Arkansas that kicked in this week. The law says only foods made of flesh of a slaughtered animal should be allowed to carry labels associated with meat, like burger. It also says cauliflower or broccoli that's been riced cannot be labeled as rice.
BURKHAM: You don't have the right to mislead consumers into believing that they're buying one thing when they're actually buying something totally different.
SELYUKH: Arkansas is just one of many states that have passed laws to restrict meat-like labels. Others include more big farming and ranching states, like Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming. Who has a beef with these restrictions? Makers of plant-based foods, of course, like Tofurky - but also, the American Civil Liberties Union.
HOLLY DICKSON: This is not a law to protect consumers.
SELYUKH: Holly Dickson is the head of the ACLU of Arkansas. In a coalition with Tofurky, the Good Food Institute and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU this week sued Arkansas over the new labeling law, arguing that it censors speech and plays favorites with industries.
DICKSON: Arkansans aren't confused about what a black bean burger or a tofu dog or almond milk are. The state law is doing nothing to protect consumers but is restricting our right to receive information about the products.
SELYUKH: Other similar lawsuits are challenging new label limits in Missouri and Mississippi. The news of these label laws has exploded on social media with snarky comments from people like Josh Greenman, New York Daily News opinion editor, and eater of both meat and non-meat.
JOSH GREENMAN: People aren't idiots. They get it. Chicken fingers don't come from chicken fingers. Herbal tea is not really tea.
SELYUKH: Hamburger does not include ham. Hot dogs are not made of dogs. But to farmers and food manufacturers, this is serious business. Every year, the average American buys hundreds of pounds of meat. Now some of the biggest fast-food chains, like Burger King and Roy Rogers, have already started offering vegan alternatives to meat.
And what worries the ag industry even more is the future, the meat that's currently being developed by scientists. It looks and tastes like the real deal but is grown in a lab from animal cells. And how that future cell-grown meat gets labeled may play a huge role in how it gets presented in stores. Here's Mark Baum of Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group.
MARK BAUM: In theory, if it winds up becoming something that's closer to the traditional labeling of beef, you might decide to place it in the meat case.
SELYUKH: But if you can't label it as meat, maybe it gets placed somewhere else. So you can call it a case of animal versus vegetable where the stakes are high.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News.
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