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Front Page - Friday, July 19, 2019

‘Veggie burger’ bill wilts on closer examination

Tennessee legislators may have dodged a bullet. Mississippi legislators definitely did not.

Maybe you’ve seen some of the resulting headlines lately. They’re intended to attract attention, and they do a good job. They sure got mine.

“Selling ‘veggie burgers’ in Mississippi can land you in prison.”

“Mississippi has criminalized the term ‘veggie burger.’”

“Mississippi sued for awful ‘veggie burger’ ban.”

It’s head-shaking stuff. Another black eye for Mississippi, and by extension the South, since we all pretty much get lumped together for the goofy doings of any one.

Is it true? No.

In their recent legislative sessions, both Tennessee and Mississippi lawmakers considered measures seeking to make it illegal to misrepresent foodstuffs that don’t come from animals as meat.

In Tennessee, for whatever reasons, House and Senate versions of the legislation died in committee.

In Mississippi, it became law, effective July 1. The pertinent language in the bill stated:

“A food product that contains cultured animal tissue produced from animal cell cultures outside of the organism from which it is derived shall not be labeled as meat or a meat food product. A plant-based or insect-based food product shall not be labeled as meat or a meat food product.”

Two observations here:

1. “Insect-based food product” is a contradiction in terms.

2. Nowhere in that language does the term “veggie burger” appear.

Nor do any of these: “Vegan burgers.” “Meatless hot dogs.” “Vegan bacon.” “Meatless meatballs.” “Vegan chorizo.” “Meatless steaks.”

And yet, a federal lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including the Plant Based Foods Association asserts that all these and more terms would be banned under the new Mississippi law.

State Senator Hob Bryan of Amory voted for the legislation. He was not alone. In fact, nobody in the Mississippi Legislature voted against it. Nobody.

When I called Bryan to ask about the recent hubbub, he dutifully reread the legislation, along with other statutes providing related definitions.

“And I didn’t find anything that does what people in the lawsuit say it does,” he says. “I’d vote for it again.”

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Justin Pearson, writes via email that, in effect, the devil’s in the details.

“Meat food product,” he writes, “is understood to cover everything from hot dogs to hamburgers to bacon.”

What’s more, he states “both the meat-industry lobbyists who pushed for the bill and members of Mississippi’s government have publicly stated that one purpose of the bill was to prevent labels from using terms like ‘plant-based burgers.’ In fact, just the other day, Commissioner Gipson appeared on a Mississippi radio station, and during the discussion he said that one of the purposes of the bill was to prevent the ‘Impossible Burger.’”

Commissioner Gipson is Andy Gipson, the state agriculture commissioner. The Impossible Burger is a vegan product that seeks to replicate the texture and taste of beef primarily using soy protein, potato protein and coconut oil.

When I relayed Gipson’s supposed quote about seeking to ban the Impossible Burger, Bryan said, “That’s impossible.”

I’ve always liked Hob Bryan.

Pearson also referred to proposed regulations to enforce the “ban,” which opponents cite as further evidence of an effort to deprive veggie food makers of their constitutional rights.

Bryan downplays the proposed rules, which, by the way, also don’t use any of the terms supposedly banned.

“I think that the plaintiffs were more interested in filing a lawsuit and getting a lot of publicity than they were in any damage to anybody trying to sell a veggie burger,” he says. “And I think that by the time this is over with, we might have a reasonable regulation.”

A regulation that doesn’t toss anybody into prison or violate anybody’s rights.

“I don’t think that the state can or should prohibit somebody from selling a properly identified product,” Bryan says, adding that “veggie burger” or whatever is a perfectly legitimate way to describe a product.

“They’re not trying to disguise that it’s plant-based,” he said of the makers. “They’re trying to brag about it.”

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.