Farm groups, plant-based food advocates differ on state bills

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Three legislative proposals to protect the terms meat, milk and dairy products are moving ahead in the Wisconsin legislative session and are getting high marks from farm groups.

Three legislative proposals to protect the terms meat, milk and dairy products are moving ahead in the Wisconsin legislative session and are getting high marks from farm groups.

During a hearing of the Wisconsin Senate’s Agriculture Committee, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) submitted testimony in support of the three bills saying that the legislation “recognizes the value of the trust our farmers have spent years building in the marketplace” and that it allows Wisconsin to “join other states whose food producers also rely on the accepted terminology in the markets.”

A national research study found that plant-based products labeled with dairy terms such as “cheese” led about one-quarter of consumers to believe that the product contained milk. “We would like Wisconsin agriculture to be positioned to join with those who stand to protect the food markets we have worked so hard to establish,” said Debi Towns, Senior Director of Governmental Relations for WFBF.

“Over decades, Wisconsin farmers have established a reputation in the marketplace, both domestically and internationally, for their products using the accepted definitions of ‘milk, dairy and meat’. The consumer could rely on these accepted definitions and confidently know that if they were purchasing ‘milk’ it was produced by a mammal and that the label ‘dairy’ meant the product originated with milk,” Towns testified.

Results from a survey using dairy cheeses and plant-based foods that mimic cheese proves that mislabeling leads people to believe that the nutritional content of plant-based products is equivalent to that of dairy.

“Consumers also knew that if they purchased a product identified as ‘meat’ it originated from the flesh of animals. Consumers also know these terms are identified with quality and safety but most of all nutritional value,” she added.

Towns told the committee that Farm Bureau is aware that food labeling is governed at the federal level by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “We anticipate that the FDA will need to take up this issue at some point in the future and when that happens, we would like Wisconsin agriculture to be positioned to join with those who stand to protect the food markets we have worked so hard to establish,” she said.

Debi Towns

The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) issued a “Bad Bill Alert” in regard to Wisconsin’s three Senate Bills on food labeling, and published a letter opposing all three measures. The association – which was formed in 2016 to represent the rapidly growing industry of companies producing plant-based “meat, egg and dairy” – noted that the bills would restrict plant-based food companies’ rights to use “commonly understood terms” for plant-based alternatives to animal products.

MORE: Wisconsin bills seek ‘Truth in Food Labeling’

“As presently drafted, each bill presents a misguided attack on innovation and all food producers’ free speech rights to use words and phrases that consumers understand,” the group said. The association claims to have 180 members ranging from small start-up food companies to established national brands to ingredient suppliers and restaurants.

Many of those members make and sell plant-based “dairy”, including plant-based “milk”, “cheese”, “yogurt” and “ice cream.” The association stated that the bills are “unnecessary, unconstitutional and misguided” and that each bill presents an “attempt to impose new restrictions on how plant-based companies communicate with their customers, infringing on their First Amendment rights to label their foods with clear, non-misleading terms.”

The Plant Based Food Association says WI bills are “unnecessary, unconstitutional and misguided” and that each bill presents an “attempt to impose new restrictions on how plant-based companies communicate with their customers, infringing on their First Amendment rights to label their foods with clear, non-misleading terms.”

Contrary to several surveys that are cited by supporters of the three Wisconsin measures, especially those involving dairy, the PBFA states that “consumers are not confused about plant-based foods. They purposefully seek out plant-based options for various personal reasons, including taste, health benefits, environmental impact and animal welfare.

“Consumers buy these products specifically because they are not traditional milk, dairy or meat,” the PBFA letter continued. “Accordingly, these bills are unnecessary and would inject confusion into the marketplace by requiring changes to labels that consumers have long understood.”

Lawsuits abound

The association cited an Ohio law that precluded use of the word “butter” in labeling or advertising any product that was made in imitation of or substitute for butter, without regard to whether such use was misleading, which was ruled unconstitutional in Lever Bros. Co. v. Maurer, (Ohio 1989.) The group also mentioned a Washington law – Anderson, Clayton & Co. v. Washington State Department of Agriculture -- which was ruled unconstitutional for prohibiting use of dairy terms in the advertising of margarine.

According to the PBFA, “the Supreme Court has affirmed and re-affirmed that these types of restrictions are unconstitutional.” The PBFA or its members have been involved as plaintiffs in these challenges, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others.

The PBFA testified that Wisconsin’s Truth in Food Labeling bills, introduced by Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) do nothing to help the state or its farmers. “Plant-based food companies present a tremendous opportunity for American farmers,” the group stated. “By working to rig the system against the plant-based foods industry, these bills hinder the potential for farmers to benefit from the exponentially growing segment.

“Competing industries must not be allowed to stifle the exponential growth of plant-based foods to further their agendas,” the testimony continued. “It is time for the meat and dairy lobby to move on and address the real, fundamental structural and economic problems facing America’s farmers.” 

The group urged Wisconsin’s legislators to reject the three bills on the grounds “that they are not sound public policy; instead, the bills put the government in the position of picking winners and losers in the market. Each bill is a direct attack on our members’ First Amendment rights to communicate using terms that have been accepted as the common and usual names for more than 30 years without confusion.”

Bipartisan support

Despite the extremely partisan atmosphere in Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature, the set of three bills has drawn bi-partisan support. Over a number of legislative sessions, agriculture has been one of the areas where lawmakers of both parties seem to find ways to work together.

Marklein’s three bills on Truth in Food Labeling have already achieved a level of bipartisan support in this session. When the package of three bills was voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it was on a unanimous, 8-0 vote, including members of both parties. Similarly, on May 14, the Assembly Committee on Agriculture endorsed the two dairy-related bills on a 13-0 vote. The meat labeling bill was endorsed on an 11-2 vote.

The package is now with the committee on rules, which is the next step to getting the Truth in Food Labeling package of legislation in front of the entire Assembly and Senate.