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Matt Ball: Don't get caught calling it a veggie burger

Matt Ball: Don't get caught calling it a veggie burger

There is an interest group lobbying in Phoenix to get special protections. Indeed, they want the state to become Big Brother, suspend the First Amendment, and police language. They actually want the government to imprison people who speak in a way they find offensive.

You might think I’m making this up. You might think this is a bad rip off of George Orwell’s novel “1984” and its oppressive Thought Police. Yet you would be wrong to think this is fiction. The madness that started in Missouri has now spread to Arizona.

Some legislators in Phoenix want to criminalize the use of the word “meat” and related terms if used in a way they don’t like. Specifically, they want anyone who sells a package that says “veggie burger” or “tofu sausage” to be arrested, prosecuted, and thrown in jail.

These bills — in Arizona’s case, HB 2604 — smack of the controlled economy of the Soviet Union, favoring one industry over another, free speech and free markets be damned.

It raises the question: Do the legislators really think their constituents can’t tell that plant-based “Chick’n” didn’t come from a slaughtered chicken?

Even if they really do think the people of Arizona can’t tell Tofurky from turkey, there are already federal laws prohibiting deceptive packaging and marketing of products. That’s right — it is already against the law to deceive consumers.

So what is really going on here? At the risk of doing hard time, I have to say this question gets to the meat of the matter. This bill is simply anti-competitive, anti-capitalism, nanny-state protectionism.

Arizona is attempting to follow in the footsteps of Missouri, which last year passed a bill criminalizing veggie burgers and soy dogs. Promoting this bill, Missouri State Rep. Greg Razer was happy to confirm that consumers weren’t the ones he’s trying to protect: “We have to protect our cattle industry, our hog farmers, our chicken industry.”

I understand that the pace of change in our economy has been increasing. And agriculture, in particular, has seen dramatic changes in a very short period of time. When my grandmother was a child, nearly half of the country was involved in farming. Modern agriculture would be entirely unrecognizable to her. Today, less than two percent of the population is producing vastly more food.

So it is understandable that some individuals and industries want the government to protect them from competition and further change. But we live in the United States, where free markets exist to encourage competition and provide consumers with more and better choice.

In addition to being anti-American, this bill is unconstitutional. Passage will result in bad PR for Arizona and legal bills for taxpayers — and it could lead to a spate of other labeling bills, each one at the behest of an industry or individual who doesn’t like some product or another on store shelves. That sure sounds like lose-lose to me.

Freedom of speech is embedded in our Constitution. It shouldn’t get suspended when a new technology frightens an incumbent industry.

It is truly frightening — and Orwellian — that Arizona’s Legislature would send someone to the gulag for calling a veggie burger a veggie burger.

Matt Ball works for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit working to shift meat production to plant-based and cell-based. He lives in Tucson.

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