LINCOLN — Veggie burgers and tofu dogs could be in trouble if a bill introduced Thursday in the Nebraska Legislature becomes law.

State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue offered Legislative Bill 14, a measure banning food products from being “misrepresented” as meat if they do not come from livestock or poultry.

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“The goal of this bill is to promote truth in advertising in our state,” Blood said. “I don’t want it to say it’s meat if it’s not meat.”

She said she became interested in the issue last summer after overhearing two women at a local grocery store debating whether a plant-based meat alternative on the shelf was really meat.

As a vegetarian herself, Blood said she has no problem with plant-based foods and doesn’t want to discourage people from eating them. But she wants to protect Nebraska’s livestock industry and the state’s consumers.

She noted that the state’s single largest industry is cattle, while hog-raising operations can be found in almost every county, and the poultry industry is also important.

LB 14 is similar to a Missouri law that took effect in August.

That law was immediately challenged in court by opponents, including Tofurky, which makes plant-based meat alternatives; the Good Food Institute; the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri; and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

A Good Food Institute spokeswoman said the Washington, D.C.-based organization would oppose Blood’s proposal as well.

“It would censor food labels and create consumer confusion where there is none,” Nicole Manu said. “This is unconstitutional and wrong.”

Under LB 14, meat would be defined as “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry carcass or part thereof.” The definition would exclude “lab-grown or insect or plant-based food products.”

The bill would ban “any misleading or deceptive practices including misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from livestock or poultry.”

Violators could be charged with a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Pete McClymont of Nebraska Cattlemen said meat labeling has been a top issue for the organization over the past 18 months. The concern is with how products that do not come from animals are identified.

“We just want consumers to know where any product comes from,” he said.

McClymont said most of the group’s effort has been focused at the federal level, where the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are sorting out regulatory authority.

He said the group appreciates the intent of LB 14 but will have to look at the details of the proposal, including how it would be enforced.

Blood said she intends for enforcement to be driven by consumer complaints, instead of requiring additional inspections or creating a new office.

At Stella’s Bar & Grill in Bellevue, co-owner Tam Francois said she isn’t sure what the bill would accomplish.

The longtime restaurant offers veggie burgers and Impossible Burgers, as well as traditional meat burgers. It was the first in Nebraska to start selling Impossible Burgers, which are billed as being “made entirely from plants for people who love meat.”

Francois said she believes that customers are clear about what they are getting when they order the non-meat burgers.

“There’s never any intention to misrepresent it as meat,” she said, noting that the Impossible Burgers have been catching on despite their higher price.

Nationally, sales of meat substitutes have grown from about $445 million in 2012 to $699 million in 2017, according to Euromonitor, a consumer research company. The market remains tiny compared with the multibillion-dollar meat industry.

But livestock producers and meat processors have their eyes on the development of laboratory-grown meat, which has yet to hit store shelves.

Developers call the product “clean meat,” “cultured meat” or “slaughter-free meat” to distinguish it from meat produced through traditional livestock practices.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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