JUDGE RULES IN FAVOR OF MIYOKO’S IN VEGAN BUTTER CASE
The United States District Court for the Northern District of California has ruled in favor of vegan dairy brand Miyoko’s, allowing the brand to use the terms ‘butter’, ‘cruelty-free’, and ‘lactose-free’ when labeling its products.
The lawsuit stems from a letter sent to Miyoko’s in December 2019 from the California Department of Food & Agriculture, informing the vegan dairy brand that the label for its vegan butter failed to comply with state and federal law. Miyoko’s was told to remove the terms ‘butter’, ‘lactose-free’, ‘hormone-free’, and ‘cruelty-free’ from its plant-based butter packaging. The California Department of Food & Agriculture claimed that due to the butter’s ingredients (coconut oil, sunflower oil, and cashew nuts) “it is not a dairy product.”
Miyoko’s responded in February 2020 with a lawsuit claiming the state and its demands were in violation of Miyoko’s First Amendment rights. The lawsuit also stated that the advertising and packaging for the butter product were neither misleading nor deceptive due to the packaging also including the words ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ in reference to the word ‘butter’.
On August 21, 2020 Judge Richard Seeborg granted Miyokos’ motion for a preliminary injunction, preventing the state from enforcing its claims in regards to the words ‘butter’, ‘lactose-free’, and ‘cruelty-free’. Explaining his ruling, Judge Seeborg stated, “The state’s showing of broad marketplace confusion around plant-based dairy alternatives is empirically underwhelming” and that the state did not “present testimony from a shopper tricked by Miyoko’s vegan butter, or otherwise make a case for why Miyoko’s substitute spread is uniquely threatening to the public weal.”
Judge Seeborg, however, denied Miyoko’s motion in regards to the use of the words ‘hormone-free’ and the phrase ‘revolutionizing dairy with plants’, the first because plants contain naturally-occurring hormones and the second because Judge Seeborg ruled the phrase “plainly misleading”.
The Miyoko’s case is not the only one in which states have aimed to enforce labeling laws against plant-based brands. In December of 2019, a federal court blocked the state of Arkansas from enforcing a meat label censorship law against plant-based meat brand The Tofurky Company. The law would have made use of the words ‘burger’, ‘sausage’, and ‘roast’ on plant-based meat packaging illegal, even with the inclusion of qualifiers such as ‘veggie’, ‘vegan’, and ‘plant-based’.
Upton’s Naturals Co., a vegan meat brand, sued the state of Mississippi’s governor and commissioner of agriculture and commerce in federal court last year, as well, when the state passed a law stipulating that plant-based foods cannot be labeled as meat even if the label also states that the product is ‘100% vegan’, ‘plant-based’, or ‘meatless’. The lawsuit was dropped in November 2019 after Mississippi revised the law, permitting the use of meaty terms on the packaging of plant-based meat products providing that qualifiers such as ‘meat-free’, ‘meatless’, ‘plant-based’, ‘vegetarian’, or ‘vegan’ were used as well.
The outcomes of these cases are huge wins for vegan and plant-based meat and dairy companies. In his ruling for Miyoko’s, Judge Seeborg noted the case between Arkansas and The Tofurkey Company, stating that “an Arkansas district attorney recently rejected that state’s framing of commercial speech as misleading where the label of plant-based ‘meat’ products included ample terminology to indicate [their] vegan or vegetarian nature.” This is promising for any plant-based companies that may come up against similar lawsuits in the future, as they now know that attempts by states to similarly enforce FDA regulations this way will likely be found unlawful under the First Amendment.