We have blogged on several occasions about the status of “meatless meat” statutes designed to restrict the sale of plant- or lab-based products that look, taste and cook like meat from animals or poultry.  On February 4, 2020, we discussed the appellant’s brief in Turtle Island’s appeal of the District Court’s denial of its motion to enjoin enforcement of Missouri’s meatless meat statute.  The State has now filed its appellee’s brief.

Shortly after the legislature passed the statute, the state Department of Agriculture announced that it would not refer cases to prosecuting attorneys if the labeling or advertising of the product clearly disclosed that its source was plant- or lab-based.  Based on that representation, the District Court denied the preliminary injunction.

This announcement has had some fairly bizarre consequences.  First, it largely makes the statute a dead letter.  A manufacturer of plant- or lab-based meat has every incentive to proclaim that fact at the top of its lungs.  Meatless meat generally costs more than its home grown counterparts, and its non-animal origin is the principal reason why customers purchase the product in the first place, whether for health or animal rights reasons.  And it means that the statute is no longer capable of doing what its backers wanted:  restricting competition for animal-based meats.

Second, it means that both parties’ briefs seem exactly backward.  Turtle Island argues that the statute is unconstitutional precisely because the statute itself does not contain the safe harbor announced by the department.  The State argues that the statute is constitutional because it does not prohibit calling a product “meat” so long as its true origin is clearly disclosed.

The State’s principal argument is quite simple:  the statute only prohibits “misrepresenting” meatless meat as meat, and it defines” “misrepresenting” as “any untrue, misleading or deceptive” ad or label.  If Turtle Island properly discloses the source of its product, there is nothing misleading about its labels or ads.  The statute would only apply if the manufacturer failed to make appropriate disclosures, and the First Amendment does not protect false or misleading speech.

The State also argues that the Court should construe the statute narrowly to avoid raising a constitutional issue.  Assuming that Turtle Island could read the statute as prohibiting all references to meat, the State asserts that the Court could also plausibly read it as prohibiting only misleading advertisements and Turtle Island’s ads and labels were not misleading.  Under this reading, the label would be illegal only if it stated or implied that meat came from animals or poultry.

The State raises argument about ripeness, standing, and the equities, but those arguments largely rest on its interpretation of the statute.  If that interpretation is wrong, these additional arguments also fail.