Miyoko Schinner is a vegan chef and cheesemaker whose products are sold nationwide.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Animal Legal Defense Fund announced on Aug. 11 that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Miyoko’s Creamery in a lawsuit focused on the company’s use of terms like “butter” and “dairy” on product marketing and labeling.

The Petaluma-based company was granted a preliminary injunction in 2020, which allowed Miyoko’s to maintain its labeling practices while the case continued without fear of enforcement by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

The lawsuit was prompted by a CDFA’s enforcement letter instructing the company to stop using terms like “butter” on its products — even with qualifiers like “vegan” and “made with plants” — alleging it violated U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling regulations. The agency instructed the company to remove its mission statement, “Revolutionizing Dairy with Plants,” and refrain from saying its products are “lactose-free” and “cruelty-free.”

The lawsuit, filed in February 2020, argues that the CDFA’s enforcement position is an attempt to unconstitutionally censor truthful commercial speech, violating Miyoko’s First Amendment right to free speech. The court agreed.

“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 Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “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.” 

“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,” said Miyoko’s founder Miyoko Schinner. “Food is ever-evolving, and so too, should language to reflect how people actually use speech to describe the foods they eat. We are extremely pleased by this ruling and believe that it will help set a precedent for the future of food.”

Using qualifiers to provide context for regulated terms, such as milk and butter, is an approved practice by the FDA and included in guidance materials published by the agency. 

For years, the dairy industry has taken the position that terms like “cultured vegan butter” and “plant-based cheese” on plant-based dairy products confuses consumers.  Increasingly, consumers are avoiding animal-based dairy due to animal cruelty, environmental impacts, and interests in eating a healthier diet.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, attempts to prevent plant-based dairy companies from using descriptive terms is nothing more than animal-industry protectionism in response to shifting consumer preferences.  

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has been at the forefront of demanding and enforcing fair regulation of plant-based foods — challenging animal agribusiness’ aggressive lobbying to strongarm state and federal lawmakers and regulatory agencies into prohibiting plant-based producers from using commonly understood terms in their marketing and packaging. 

The Animal Legal Defense Fund currently represents the interests of both plant-based and cultivated meat — meat produced from animals’ cells, without having to raise and slaughter animals — producers litigating the constitutionality of restrictive labeling laws and ensuring a level playing field for regulation of all products.

Deepak Gupta and Neil Sawhney from the firm Gupta Wessler are co-counsel in this lawsuit.

According to Schinner’s website (miyokos.com), “Miyoko invented the category of artisan vegan cheese. Now she’s on a mission to revolutionize the entire dairy industry. Recognized by the United Nations as a ‘Vegan Revolutionary’ in its ‘The Future of Women’ global initiative, Miyoko Schinner is the compassionate, phenomenally vegan founder and CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery.

“A cheesemaker, cult celebrity chef, best-selling cookbook author, animal advocate, environmentalist, global speaker and entrepreneur, Miyoko is an epicurean activist who is leading the animal-free transformation of the dairy industry.”

She leads the fastest-growing natural cheese brand in the U.S., now sold by more than 10,000 retailers nationwide.

Schinner founded Rancho Compasión with her husband Michael to provide a loving, lifelong home for rescued farm animals, and to change public perception about animals typically viewed as food.

Born Miyoko Nishimoto in a village outside Tokyo, she moved with her family to the U.S. at age 7 and graduated from St. John’s College in Maryland. Schinner transitioned to eating vegan in the mid-1980s.

During the 1990s, she taught vegan cooking classes, and in 1991 The Book Publishing Company published her first vegan cookbook, “The Now and Zen Epicure.” In 1994, she opened the vegan restaurant Now and Zen in San Francisco, which eventually expanded into a natural food company of the same name, which was sold in 2003. Schinner has launched a number of vegan brands, such as UnTurkey, which she exhibited at the 1995 Natural Products Expo.

Her “Artisan Vegan Cheese” cookbook was published in 2012. That same year she began co-hosting the PBS cooking show “Vegan Mashup” with Toni Fiore and Terry Hope Romero.

In 2014, Schinner launched vegan cheese company Miyoko’s Kitchen, later renaming it Miyoko’s Creamery. Tofurky founder Seth Tibbott was the company’s first investor. In 2016, the Specialty Food Association reported the company had “grown 300% year over year,” and “recently signed on to a new 28,000+-square-foot headquarters in Petaluma.”

In 2015, Ten Speed Press published Schinner’s “The Homemade Vegan Pantry.” In 2019, the cookbook was named one of the Best Vegan Cookbooks by Good Housekeeping.

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