But the law, which carries potential fines of up to $1,000 and jail terms of up to a year, has created a pressing problem for companies like Tofurky, which are grappling with what kind of language they will be allowed to use, especially when trying to attract potential customers who aren’t die-hard vegans and aren’t sure how their plant-based hot dogs will taste.
“If we describe something as meaty, is that a problem?” Mr. Athos said. “If we compare the flavor to bacon, is that a problem?” He said he does not want to use phrases like “textured protein” without any references to familiar food. “If we’re able to say ‘soy chicken,’ they can imagine how that might fit into the recipes and food they enjoy already.”
The Food and Drug Administration already has rules to prevent companies from misleading consumers. Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, said it did not make sense to add state laws to those regulations. “Nobody is slapping meat or beef on their products without qualifying terms like plant-based,” Ms. Simon said. “It’s really a David vs. Goliath situation here.”
Supporters of the law are not convinced.
Todd Hayes, who runs a hog farm in Monroe City, Mo., that produces 13,000 pigs a year, said he’s worried about consumers thinking that his industry might be tricking people. “Once we lose the trust of consumers and they don’t believe what labels tell them, we’re on a slippery slope that we don’t want to go down,” Mr. Hayes said. “Once you lose trust in an industry, it’s extremely hard to gain that back.”
These arguments are likely to continue flaring up as more companies turn to plant-based products to sate the appetites of those looking for alternatives to meat, said Ivan Wasserman, a managing partner who specializes in food labeling at the law firm Amin Talati Upadhye.
In the long term, this could push the F.D.A. toward more regulation if more lawsuits over the use of meat-related words crop up, said Mr. Wasserman. “If there are laws saying these companies have tricked consumers, I could see some moves for the F.D.A. at a national level to define what can be called a hot dog,” he said.
Until then, the group that has sued Missouri is still waiting for a response.
“They are threatening to throw people in jail for calling veggie burgers ‘veggie burgers,’” said Bruce Friedrich, the executive director of the Good Food Institute. “It’s Orwellian.”