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Recent Missouri editorials

July 30, 2019

The Kansas City Star, July 29

Missouri law says fake meat should be labeled. How is that a free speech issue?

Will meat by any other name still appeal to consumers? A battle over whether fake meat must be labeled as such for consumers’ sake is intensifying, and a Missouri law sits squarely at the heart of the debate.

Last year, the state became the first in the nation to make it a criminal offense for businesses to misrepresent as meat a product that is not derived from livestock or poultry.

The law aims to limit confusion as consumers navigate grocery store aisles filled with a growing number of plant-based products and other meat alternatives that look a whole lot like traditional burgers, hot dogs, turkey and more. Violators face up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

Tofurky, a vegetarian food company, advocacy group Good Food Institute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri have filed suit, arguing that the First Amendment allows companies to label products as they see fit.

Free speech is not a license to mislead consumers. Missouri’s truth-in-advertising laws exists for a reason. If food is plant-based, companies should label it accordingly. No one should be left wondering what they’re consuming.

After months of negotiations, a settlement in the case appeared to be within reach earlier this year. Those talks stalled this month when attorneys from both sides told U.S. District Senior Judge Fernando Gaitan that they were unable to reach a final agreement.

The plaintiffs, citing a right to compete in the free market, had previously asked Gaitan to deem the law unconstitutional.

The impasse sets the stage for a lengthy legal fight, one that could have ramifications nationwide. Several states have followed Missouri’s lead in regulating packaging for meat alternatives.

This issue should not be complicated: Fake meat isn’t meat.

As an array of plant-based and clean-meat products gain popularity, consumers should know what, exactly, they’re eating. Companies such as Tofurky, Impossible Foods, which makes the Impossible Burger, and Beyond Meat, which developed the Beyond Burger, should be required to inform consumers that their products are derived from plants or non-traditional agriculture.

Mark Dopp, senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel to the North American Meat Institute, said a labeling law levels the playing field for cattle ranchers who are supportive of the rule.

The organization hasn’t taken sides on the issue, Dopp said, adding that the federal government defines meat as “the part of the muscle of any cattle, sheep, swine, or goats, which is skeletal.” Terms such as “hamburger,” ″sausage,” and “bacon” are also clearly defined.

“When it comes to labeling, the federal government has standards of identity,” Dopp said. “As long as a plant-based product doesn’t misrepresent itself as something that it is not — which is meat — let the market decide.”

Missouri’s law allows label qualifiers such as “plant-based” to precede “meat” terms.

Proponents of the labeling regulations correctly argue that labeling on plant-based meat alternatives is misleading and confusing to consumers. Opponents say the new meatless, plant-based alternatives are healthy competition for the cattle industry.

But plant-based burgers are not beef in the traditional sense. They should be regulated. And requiring the use of a “plant-based’” qualifier on packaging is simply a matter of truth in advertising.

The court will determine the merits of Missouri’s law. But properly labeling products doesn’t infringe on a company’s right to free speech or its ability to turn a profit. And bewildered consumers won’t be left asking, “Where’s the beef?”

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The Jefferson City News-Tribune, July 24

Clean Missouri gift cap working as promised

Last year, voters — fed up with the Missouri Legislature’s failed attempts to police itself through ethics reform — passed Clean Missouri.

It was a sweeping ethics reform initiative petition that, among other things, bans lobbyists from giving any single gift worth more than $5 to lawmakers. That, according to proponents, means no more steak dinners, expensive booze or junkets.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the workings at the Capitol knows such gifts were standard fare. For decades, the building was awash in gifts ranging from lobbyist-provided meals to expensive fruit baskets, not to mention box seats at sporting events.

It’s all part of the business of buying influence, which isn’t always in the best interest of the general public.

However, the law changed that, and the change appears to be working.

A KCUR-FM, Kansas City, analysis of state data concludes that spending on lawmakers dropped 94 percent since voters approved the $5 cap, according to an Associated Press story we ran Sunday.

That amounted to less than $17,000, compared to last year’s spending of about $300,000.

Lawmakers have long defended the gifts, saying a free meal doesn’t buy their vote. Maybe not, but it does give lobbyists a level of access to elected officials that we as constituents don’t have.

In the AP story, Kelly Gillespie, lobbyist and president of the Missouri Biotech Association, said his group last year spent about $4,000 on a tour of life science businesses in western Missouri in an effort to educate lawmakers on drug discovery and health care affordability. That amount is prohibited under the new rules.

But he understands why voters enacted the limit.

“There were other folks that were taking people to the Daytona 500 or to rock concerts or Masters golf tickets,” Gillespie said in the story. “And there was a feeling that it had gotten too much, and it was the Wild West.”

So voters should realize their wishes have been realized — undo influence is waning.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 27

Editorial: Accountability is key to fixing problems that are killing county jail inmates

Nobody ever said that transparency had to be easy or comfortable, or that public information always must portray government operations in a positive light. Transparency means allowing the public to see what’s going on — warts and all. And some of the most unsightly warts can be found under the darkness-cloaked operations at the St. Louis County Justice Center.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page probably understands better than most how important it is to introduce transparency and accountability to clean up the mess left behind by his corrupt predecessor, Steve Stenger. If Page hopes to fix the flawed procedures behind four deaths of county jail inmates this year, he must find a way to open the records that jail and health care personnel are working so hard to keep under wraps.

Three jail inmates died directly under the county’s care, while a fourth died only minutes after being transferred out of county custody. The circumstances surrounding all four deaths suggest the inmates suffered needlessly and that more disciplined attention by staffers could have prevented tragedy.

The public has only been allowed to know the broad outlines of how the inmates died because county officials are hiding behind federal and state laws that limit the release of health and personnel records. Some of the excuses being cited are flimsy at best, including to release medical files even after family members have approved their release.

In the case of Lamar Catchings, who was found dead in his cell on March 1, the county won’t even release the handwritten notes the deceased prisoner left behind, the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler reported. Kohler’s Sunshine Law requests have been repeatedly stonewalled.

During a meeting Monday of the Page-appointed Justice Services Advisory Board, Catchings’ mother, Tashonda Troupe, expressed her frustration over the jail’s ongoing penchant for secrecy and self-protection. “I’m his only next of kin,” she said. “So, why can’t I know? Why can’t I have that information?”

County jail and health care personnel continue to exercise such a high level of secrecy that not even the person named by Stenger as jail director to fix its procedural problems, Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, can access the information he needs.

Page acknowledged to the editorial board that he is flustered by some bureaucrats’ obsession with patient privacy, even after the patient is dead. As a doctor, Page says, he wants to identify what’s causing people to die to prevent it from happening again. As a politician, Page added, he wants to be as transparent with the public as is legally possible. He knows staffing and training have been inadequate and probably contributed to the deaths — especially when guards took it upon themselves to decide when an inmate needed immediate medical attention or was faking it.

Justice services board members are equally frustrated with staffers’ failure to embrace transparency and accountability as their new mantra. As the board chairman, the Rev. Phillip Duvall, put it, “Those are not just cliché words.”

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