Miyoko’s Creamery is celebrating a major win in the legal battle of who gets to use the label “butter.” On Tuesday, a California federal judge ruled in favor of the plant-based dairy brand’s use of the term on its products.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the state cannot stop Miyoko’s from using terms like “butter,” “cruelty free,” and “lactose free” on its labels. The Sonoma County-based brand makes vegan dairy products, including cultured European butter.
In December 2019, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) had sent a letter to Miyoko’s, stating the company violated state food regulations by labeling its products as “vegan butter” and “cruelty free.” In February 2020, Miyoko’s sued the CDFA, claiming that the state violated the company’s First Amendment rights.
In August 2020—despite the state’s plea to throw out the case—the court granted, in part, Miyoko’s preliminary injunction. During the hearing, the state presented a study that found 26 percent of consumers misidentified vegan cheese products. However, according to its findings, 19 percent of the study’s participants also misidentified dairy-based cheeses.
“While 12 percent of respondents misidentified plant-based milks, 16 percent misidentified animal-based milks,” Judge Seeborg said.
“Taken as a whole, this research merely signals the following: that consumers are perhaps a bit better at identifying traditional cheeses than vegan cheeses, and perhaps a (roughly equivalent) bit better at identifying vegan milks than traditional milks,” the judge continued. “For the purposes of First Amendment scrutiny, this modest takeaway hardly cuts in favor of finding Miyoko’s use of ‘butter’ inherently misleading.”
Miyoko’s legal battle: A major win for vegan dairy
The judge’s ruling in favor of Miyoko’s use of vegan butter labels sets a major precedent for other vegan brands.
“The CDFA’s attempt to censor Miyoko’s from accurately describing its products and providing context for their use is a blatant example of agency capture,” said Stephen Wells, the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which represents Miyoko’s.
“The fact that animal-milk producers fear plant-based competition does not give state agencies the authority to restrict one industry in order to help another,” Wells added.
California is the latest state to try to censor the use of meat and dairy terms on vegan food products. In 2019, Missouri became the first state to pass label censorship, according to the Good Food Institute.
Other states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi have all sought to enforce similar bans or restrictions. However, the Plant Based Foods Association and vegan brand Upton’s Naturals successfully challenged the Mississippi ban with the help of the Institute for Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm. In the state, plant-based foods are no longer considered mislabeled as long as meat-containing phrases are paired with words like vegan or plant-based.
“Using words such as ‘butter’ and ‘milk’ in the context of even products made from plants and not from animals is common parlance among consumers in the modern world,” Miyoko Schinner, founder and owner of Miyoko’s Creamery, said. “Food is ever-evolving, and so too, should language to reflect how people actually use speech to describe the foods they eat.”