The “Truth in Labeling of Food Products Act” passed by the Louisiana Legislature in 2019 violates the commercial free speech rights of Turtle Island Foods, which produces and packages plant-based meat products marketed and sold in the state and nationwide.
Turtle Island Foods was founded in 1980 and is headquartered in Hood River, OR. The company produces Tofurky, a popular vegetarian and vegan alternative to turkey, as well other meatless products.
Federal Judge Brian A. Jackson sided with the Turtle Island plaintiffs against the state of Louisiana’s long list of banned speech. The decision means plant-based alternatives should be able to ignore the Louisiana labeling law because it goes too far in prescribing commercial speech. Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Michael G. Strain was the defendant, who took the loss for the state.
The 2-year-old Louisiana labeling law came with the threat of prosecution for false and misleading statements by plant-based alternatives over a wide area. These included “representing a food product as beef or a beef product when the food product is not derived from domesticated bovine.” The same language was included for pork and pork products, rice, poultry, among other restrictions.
Louisiana hasn’t taken any enforcement action related to the labeling law and Commissioner Strain has not issued any rules or guidelines for the labeling law. In his ruling, Judge Jackson said Turtle Island “has refrained from using certain words and images on marketing materials and packages and has removed videos on its website and social media.”
He also noted that “No federal agency has brought any enforcement action against plaintiff for the misleading use of ‘meat’ or related terms to describe plant-based meats based on its food labels or marketing materials.” And there haven’t been any consumer complaints.
Turtle Island sued Commissioner Strain, as the responsible state official, on Oct. 7, 2020. The case was heard in federal district court for the Middle District of Louisiana. Judge Jackson, who was named to the bench in 2010 by President Obama, granted the company’s motion for a Summary Judgement on March 28.
In his 20-page ruling, the judge accepts Turtle Island’s argument that its conduct “constitutes protected commercial speech” and the Act’s purpose is to prohibit “current and intended speech” by those representing plant-based products.
None of the nine Turtle Island labels presented to the court violate Louisiana’s new labeling law, according to Commissioner Strain. But the “threat of future enforcement is credible,” according to Jackson. “The Court finds that the threat of future enforcement is substantial,” he said.
Commercial speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, but the protection is more limited than other forms of speech. At issue is whether an unlawful activity is involved; whether there is a substantial government interest; whether regulation advances the government interest and whether it is limited to “no more than necessary.”
The party seeking to uphold a restriction on commercial speech has the burden of justifying it. And, it cannot confuse consumers.
The judge said the State “failed to satisfy the required burden of demonstrating a reasonable fit between the regulation and the constitutionally-protected speech.”
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