Plant-based brand Miyoko’s Creamery has recently won the first round in its legal battle with the State of California over its use of the term “butter” on its vegan product. The company says that the State is violating its rights to free speech by prohibiting the brand from describing the qualities and characteristics of its plant-based products.
In an order filed on Thursday (June 25), Richard Seeborg, the U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California, concluded in favour of Miyoko’s, saying that the company had already “met its burden of establishing a credible threat of prosecution.”
The dispute began last year after Miyoko’s was told by the Department of Food & Agriculture to drop the terms “butter”, “lactose-free”, “hormone-free” and “cruelty-free” from its vegan butter product, which is made from coconut oil, cashew nuts and sunflower oil because it is a non-dairy item.
Miyoko’s is a Californian startup founded by Miyoko Schinner in 2014, and its product line includes plant-based artisanal cheese wheels, butter, mozzarella, cream cheese and roadhouse spread.
The State’s move prompted Miyoko’s to develop custom packaging for its products sold in California and change its marketing and packaging materials nationwide or potentially face prosecution. Consequently, the brand filed a lawsuit in February 2020 to prevent the State from enforcing its demands, which Miyoko’s argues had violated its rights outlined in the U.S. First Amendment.
The Californian attorney general had argued that the brand’s lawsuit was “premature” and that a negotiation could have been reached. But the company stated that the negotiated solution could have meant changing its labels to ditch the term – something that Miyoko’s fundamentally disagrees with – which brought about the need to file a lawsuit.
Now, in the first step of the legal battle, the judge has sided with Miyoko’s on this matter. “Because Miyoko’s satisfies the standing and ripeness requirements, the State’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is denied,” stated judge Seeborg.
“Next we proceed with our Motion for Preliminary Injunction,” said Miyoko Schinner in conversation with FoodNavigator. “We’ll have to wait for that hearing to be set, likely two to three months from now.” The plant-based startup has filed the motion in late May, which means that until a ruling is made, the brand can continue using its labelling as it stands, including the term “butter”.
Some have argued that plant-based brands such as Miyoko’s and Califia Farms could simply use the term “margarine”, used to describe traditional butter substitutes made from vegetable oils, animal welfare activists and food tech experts have highlighted that these next-generation plant-based versions are different in its ability to mimic conventional animal-based products and includes premium ingredients such as coconuts, cashews and almond milk.
Debates about the use of dairy and meat terms have grown in recent years as plant-based sales continue to surge, as they become increasingly popular amongst consumers on the lookout for healthier and more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
According to the Plant Based Foods Association, many plant-based meat brands have found themselves in pitched battles against big meat or dairy industry funded lobbyers who have fought their use of these terms on grounds that the products do not contain any animal ingredients.
But it appears as though legal fights will do little to slow down the inevitable rise of plant-based, which is only experiencing even more rapid growth amid the coronavirus crisis that has elevated concerns about food safety and sustainability. From the U.S. to Hong Kong, shoppers are now choosing plant-based more than ever before, a trend that CEO and founder of food tech Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, believes will lead to the end of animal meat within the next 15 years.
All images courtesy of Miyoko’s Creamery.