What' in a name?

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If you need any further proof that legislators are deep in the pocket of their corporate lobbyists, and line up to kiss them to prove their fealty, look no further than the new laws that are sweeping the nation. In just a few short months, no fewer than twenty-four state governments have risen to the great challenges that face our nation.

I’m not talking about climate change, immigration, education, or health care. Those are but minor annoyances. I’m referring to perhaps the greatest crisis of our time – calling something a burger when it DOESN’T HAVE MEAT. Yes, the cattlemen are afraid of veggie burgers.

The sponsors of these bills cite consumer confusion. For example, the Arkansas “Truth in Labeling” law states, “The purpose of this subchapter is to protect consumers from being misled or confused by false or misleading labeling of agricultural products that are edible by humans.”

The fact that virtually no one is actually misled by products like “veggie burgers” or “almond milk” is beside the point, which – as the most honest of these sponsors will admit – is to protect the beef and dairy industry from increasingly popular non-meat alternatives.

In Arkansas, the rice growers have even gotten on board, battling those who dare produce “cauliflower rice.” Now, that nefarious deed will cost you a big fine. Arkansas Act 501, section 2—1-305 (11), makes it a violation to “Affix[] a label that uses a variation of rice in the name of the agricultural product when the agricultural product is not rice or 21 derived from rice.”

Defenders of the law strain to persuade. The New York Times quoted Francis Thomp­son, a Democratic Louisiana state senator, as saying “that the issue had gone unchecked for far too long. ‘Broccoli is not rice,’ he said. ‘And certainly tofu burgers are not meat.’” Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Admin­istration, once declared “An almond doesn’t lactate.”

But as vox.com points out, “Consumers will probably be more confused if product labels they know and recognize, like ‘soy milk’ and ‘veggie burger,’ are replaced with unfamiliar ones.” Freya Dinshah, the president of the American Vegan Society, points out that “Nut milks have been around for decades, if not centuries. We’ve had coconut milk since probably the beginning of time.”

As Republican Senator Mike Lee logically explained, “No one buys almond milk under the false illusions that it came from a cow. They buy almond milk because it didn’t come from a cow.”

Sen. Lee’s quote is in an ACLU press release. That venerable civil rights organization is fighting back, suing Arkansas under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, on behalf of Tofurkey — which has been around 24 years. They are hoping for an outcome like in California, where a court ruled it was “nonsense” to argue that terms like “soy milk” and “almond milk” would confuse consumers.

“The crux of the claims is that a reasonable consumer might confuse plant-based beverages such as soymilk or almond milk for dairy milk, because of the use of the word ‘milk,’” the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California wrote, dismissing the case. “The claim stretches the bounds of credulity. Under Plaintiffs’ logic, a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.” (Vox.com)

Candy is a whole ‘nother kettle of .... Well, there’s Swedish Fish, of course. Not to mention Gummi Bears, chocolate rabbits, marzipan pigs, and Chick-O-Sticks. Other food names that may have to be reexamined include beefsteak tomatoes and peanut butter.

Obviously, I’m not enamored of these lawmakers, but I suspect we’ll get the last laugh. Just wait until they realize that hamburgers contain no actual ham, and that hot dogs don’t contain a speck of Canis lupus familiaris – at least in most countries.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at Twitter @nickroumel or Instagram @nroumel.