A lawsuit that claims Mississippi is violating the free-speech rights of vegetarian food producers was inevitable.

A new state law took effect Monday forbidding plant-based or insect-based foods from being labeled as “meat or a meat food product.” This drew an immediate court challenge from the Plant Based Foods Association and an Illinois company that makes vegan products and sells them around the country, including in Mississippi.

It’s not difficult to see the real problem here. Producers of foods like beef, poultry, pork and lamb see the popularity of non-meat products growing and naturally want to protect their market share.

It had to be easy to convince legislators to pass laws like the one in Mississippi, citing concerns that vegan food that looks or tastes like meat could mislead customers.

Maybe so, but it’s just as easy to see, as the lawsuit points out, that no reasonable consumer would be fooled by packaging that describes food as “meatless steaks” or “vegan jerky.”

Vegetarian food producers are like “independent” filmmakers: They’re proud of their alternative offerings. That means they’re less likely to try and trick customers into buying their products through inaccurate or misleading packaging labels. They want to make the sale by arguing that their food is healthier and does not kill animals.

If meat producers have a problem, it’s not the fact that “meatless steak” amounts to a contradiction of terms. It’s that non-meat foods continue to gain a slightly larger share of customer interest and spending.

That’s a puzzling trend, especially for those of us who enjoy a good cheeseburger, fried chicken or a properly marinated steak. Meat is fine food, but we live in a free country, and there clearly is a growing interest in vegetarian foods. The state is certain to defend the case, but it does run the risk of losing.

This lawsuit can be settled with some negotiation over acceptable product labeling

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