Lobbyists for Kansas livestock producers who are gnashing their teeth over the marketing of plant-based food products are asking legislators to rewrite the state's food labeling law.
The proposal raises questions about the legality of limiting free speech, the extent of confusion among people buying plant-based products, and which business interests win or lose.
Competing forces clashed Thursday in a hearing over legislation that would require packages of plant-based foods that reference an "identifiable meat term" to declare "this product does not contain meat" on the packaging, or describe the product as "imitation."
Aaron Popelka, of the Kansas Livestock Association, took aim in particular at Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, accusing the companies of "outright deceiving" marketing practices.
Those companies have made it clear they want to target meat eaters, he said, and labels like the one for "Beyond Beef Crumbles" — which includes multiple references to being plant-based — are confusing. Plant-based products contain more calories, fat and salt, and less protein, Popelka said, and confusion about the product could damage the reputation of livestock producers.
"What we're really about is making sure labels are accurate and consumers understand what they are buying," Popelka said.
Scott Weathers, of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that lobbies for plant-based food products, said people buy veggie burgers because they want to eat veggie burgers.
Nobody pretends the products come from cows, Weathers said, and federal law already prohibits false and misleading labels. He also pointed out that Kansas growers of corn, soy and wheat provide ingredients for plant-based products.
"This is a solution in search of a problem," Weathers said. "Consumers are not confused by plant-based foods. In fact, plant-based food sales are growing in Kansas and around the country precisely because consumers are seeking out these products knowing they are plant-based."
Samuel MacRoberts, general counsel for Kansas Justice Institute, said he would expect an immediate court battle if the legislation were enacted.
He pointed to two other states that passed similar label laws that were struck down because they impose content-based restrictions on speech.
If the tables were turned, MacRoberts said, he also would oppose a hypothetical requirement that meat products are labeled with a reference to the damage caused by greenhouse gasses associated with the livestock industry.
The legislation, House Bill 2437, is sponsored by Rep. Ron Highland, a Republican from Wamego who chairs the House Agriculture Committee.
Plant-based items that reference the following terms would need a disclaimer in equal font, style and size: beef, pork, poultry, chicken, turkey, lamb, goat, jerky, steak, hamburger, burger, ribs, roast, bacon, bratwurst, hot dog, ham, sausage, tenderloin, wings and breast.