In Missouri you can now go to jail for calling tofu meat

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In 24 years of being a vegetarian, Kristen DiFate has never mistakenly eaten meat. The 37-year-old associate creative director for a Missouri shoe company has bought Tofurky (imitation turkey made of tofu), tempeh, and veggie burgers made with beans. So this week, when her home state passed legislation banning the use of the word “meat” on the labels of such products and on menus, she said she couldn’t believe it.

As long as it’s clear what people are eating, DiFate sees no problem with “veggie veal” or “veggie hot dogs” or “meatless meatballs.” They’re meat substitutes, after all. “Consumers do deserve to know where their food comes from,” she said. “But should lab-meats be refused the right to use the term meat? Probably not. And should we refuse meat alternatives or meat-substitutes from being able to use the term meat? No, that’s a bit much.”

The law, which was passed in June and went into effect on Tuesday, forbids “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Manufacturers who do not properly label products may face a fine of $1,000 or a year in prison. The Missouri Cattlemen’s Association (MCA), which lobbied for the law, said such products should be better labeled to “eliminate the likelihood of confusion and to better inform consumers.”

“MCA will not stand for laboratory grown food or plant-based meat alternatives to be marketed as something it’s not,” the association said on its website.

Critics say the bill doesn’t really help manufacturers or restaurants that are trying to make fake meat sound more fun and delicious for customers. “This is about protecting the meat industry and keeping people from eating meat substitutes,” Christopher Elliott, founder of consumer advocacy organization Elliott.org, said. “The meat industry is afraid people will try Tofurky and realize they don’t have to eat as much meat.”

Consumer spending on meat substitutes jumped from $556.3 million a year in 2012 to $698.6 million in 2017 — a 25.6% increase, according to the research firm EuroMonitor International. Major fast-food chains have invested in meat alternatives as well. KFC now has YUM, +0.87%   veggie chicken on its menu and White Castle sells a “bloody” veggie burger.

It’s also cheaper to eat a meat-free diet. Vegetarian diets cost an average of only $15.40 per day compared to $17 a day for the average “healthy” meat-eating diet in the U.S. and meat eaters spend an average of $750 more each year on food costs, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition.

On Monday, the day before the law went into action, the company that makes Tofurky and the Missouri ACLU filed for an injunction against the statute in Missouri federal court. Amanda Howell, a staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund on the lawsuit challenging the law, said because the wording of the bill is broad, it’s unclear whether Tofurkey would be in violation of this law. In the petition for the injunction, attorneys claim the law was unnecessary because the state has not received any complaints from consumers confused by terms like “veggie chicken” or “plant-based meats.”

“Plant producers have no incentive to hide what is in their products,” Howell said. “They want to distinguish their products from traditional meat.”

The law is also meant to target lab-grown meat, which a number of companies are racing to get to market. In July, German drugmaker Merck and European meat processing group Bell Food Group invested $8.8 million in Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, which makes beef from cattle cells.

Howell said the Missouri case isn’t just about meat; it has broader implications. “Anyone who cares about free speech should want to sit up and take notice, this is not a trend we want to see other states taking part in,” Howell said.

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