The veggie sausage might soon become the veggie ‘tube’, if EU proposals that call for veggie brands to stop using meat terminology are passed. But is it necessary? And what would be the impact on meat alternatives?
It was only a few lines, buried in 157 pages of sometimes complex, sometimes dull proposals on European agriculture. But the rather dryly labelled amendments 667 and 670 were enough to spark an international debate on the terminology of food.
Put forward by French MEPs Éric Andrieu and Karine Gloanec Maurin, the EU proposals call for a drastic tightening of the way in which vegetarian and vegan foods are allowed to use terms traditionally applied to meat.
Names such as steak, sausage and burger would be stripped from these veggie substitutes (or any products “primarily made up of proteins of vegetable origin”) and restricted solely for use on products “exclusively derived from animal matter”.
To the surprise of some, and the outrage of others, in April the proposal was passed by 80% of the members that sit on the EU’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, and will now go forward for consideration by the EU as it thrashes out the terms of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
If brought into force, such changes will help reduce growing confusion among consumers perplexed at the provenance and nutritional content of their food, say proponents.
Quite the opposite, argue campaigners. Such a change will in fact add unnecessary cost, confusion and complexity to a burgeoning sector, and amount to little more than a victory for the meat lobby. So, who’s right?
Well, those pushing for such a change say it boils down to clarity of labelling and ensuring consumers are clear on the nutritional value of a dish. Sticking a sausage label on a product made up of processed vegetables or plant protein is ‘misleading for consumers’ who may be unclear that what they’re buying doesn’t in fact contain meat, they say.
What’s more, by clamping down and forcing plant-based brands to find alternative terms, the EU is simply bringing meat alternatives into line with existing restrictions, under which plant-based milk alternatives must market themselves.
The logic has been powerful enough to convince France already, with the government passing such an amendment to its domestic Agricultural Bill in 2018, complete with a €300,000 fine for those brands or retailers that fail to comply.
Major backer Jean Baptiste-Moreau, a French politician and former cattle farmer, argues it’s an important step in fighting the prevalence of these “false claims” across plant-based.
For critics, though, the idea that confused consumers are getting home from the supermarket to find they’ve accidentally purchased a vegan burger is ludicrous and unsubstantiated.
“Those that do support this ban claim they’re concerned about consumer confusion but there is no real evidence to support that,” says Ronja Berthold, public affairs officer at the European Vegetarian Union. “In fact, the evidence there is suggests the contrary.”
The evidence she’s referring to is a German study carried out in 2017, which found that only 4% of consumers have ever unintentionally bought a vegetarian or vegan product instead of an animal-based one, or vice versa.
It’s hardly in the interests of plant-based alternatives to mislead consumers anyway, argued Geoff Bryant, technical director at Quorn Foods, at a select committee hearing in the Commons last month.
“We actively want to mimic meat. We want consumers to make a conscious choice and continue with those same eating behaviours, to put a vegetarian burger in a bun and still enjoy a barbecue. We don’t want to encourage consumers to feel awkward about how they name a product, but to consciously shift their food choices away from meat.”
Confusion around plant-based labels is often more nuanced though, say those pushing for change, in particular when it comes to nutrition. ‘Substitution is a powerful marketing concept that can reassure consumers they are simply replacing a product with another,’ wrote Annette Toft, chair of the working party on foodstuffs at Copa-Cogeca, the organisation of European farmers and agri co-operatives, in a blog post last week. But ‘a plant-based drink or a plant-based sausage, even if it resembles the colour and texture of its original counterpart, does not guarantee the same nutritional intake’.
Toft cites a 2018 study, commissioned by the dairy industry, that found 50% of French consumers thought plant-based drinks provided equivalent nutrition to cows milk, while one in three believed plant-based drinks and desserts even contained cows milk. “What is even worse, one in five French people state that plant-based drinks are sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of babies.”
Ruth Edge, food chain advisor at the NFU, has some sympathy for this argument when it comes to certain meat alternatives. “Where we have concern is over those primal cuts of meat,” she told MPs last month.
“Forty-eight per cent of teenage girls are deficient in iron and one way they can increase their iron intake is by eating meat and eating steak. If the term steak is used on a piece of cauliflower it doesn’t have the same nutritional content.”
Dominic Watkins, head of food sector practice at DWF Law, chuckles at this argument. “If I were a consumer I would be mighty disappointed if I thought I was getting steak and got cauliflower,” he says. “But notwithstanding that the terminology is designed to be used in the same way as it is with meat, in the sense that you’re describing a cut of a product, I don’t think anyone consumes steak on the basis of its nutrient profile.”
But what about appropriating the good reputation meat has built up, argues Nick Allen, CEO at the British Meat Processors Organisation. More than simple nutrients, this is about appropriating the standards and quality reputation the meat industry, particularly in Britain, has worked hard to create.
“Twenty years ago if you went into a supermarket the only thing you’d find on a shelf is Wall’s sausages,” he says. “It was a pretty dire category. But over the last two decades the meat industry has worked hard to premiumise sausages. We’ve moved it from being this fairly mundane product to something premium that some people even serve at weddings.
“Now all of a sudden you’ve got these other companies coming along and calling these things sausages and it’s open season on what could be in them. I keep asking, why do this anyway? Why process vegetables, stick a load of preservatives in them and then try and imitate a meat product?”
In short, because it creates a familiarity around unfamiliar ingredients, helping to ease unsure consumers into a new category. Terms such as burger or sausage “give you the indicators of how a product should be cooked, what it might look and taste like, and what to serve it with”, explains Mark Banahan of The Vegan Society.
Suggested replacements, such as ‘discs’ and ‘tubes’, simply wouldn’t provide the same reassurance.
For that reason these proposals most likely won’t deter established vegetarians, he adds, but create an additional barrier for those looking to reduce meat consumption but unsure how to use emerging alternatives.
“Launching will be harder. If you have to find alternative names that people aren’t familiar with, it might stall innovation”
“The cost and complexity, and the confusion to the consumers is just totally unnecessary,” added Bryant. “We know our mince is 10% of the fat, 10% of the environmental footprint - we should be actively encouraging people to use meat-free mince as it’s good for them and good for the planet. Why put a barrier in the way?”
For the brands too there are huge implications. “We would have to change all our packaging,” he adds. “Cost is one thing, but it would also tie up the time of the people in our business, who are working hard to grow the business, which is good for the economy. We would probably need two or three years to transition all our products. It is a total waste of people’s time.”
“And for new entrants it’s even harder”, says Banahan. With some young brands the proposals “could put them out of business”.
“The plant-based sector is a very innovative one, one that is still growing and there are new product launches all the time,” says Berthold. But “there is definitely the danger that launching those products will be made harder and if you have to find alternative names that people aren’t familiar with it might stall innovation.”
For Mike Easterbrook, the EU representative for US plant-based manufacturer Loma Linda, “the bigger debate in all of this is we have animal protein shortages developing and we have to use plant-based as part of the solution. I do wish people would see the bigger picture and work together to find a protein solution rather than adopting the defensive position they have at the moment.”
This argument is, in many ways, at the crux of this debate. Is this really about consumer confusion? Or a thinly veiled protectionist move by the hugely powerful meat industry? We’ve seen it in dairy, points out Watkins, so surely these proposals are signs of that “same protectionism now segueing its way into the meat space”.
And debate isn’t limited to the EU. Lobby groups in 25 US states are also challenging use of such terms on plant-based foods, following a 15-page petition submitted a year ago by the US Cattlemen’s Association calling for clarification on the terms ‘beef’ and ‘meat’.
“Now what will happen is the vegan and vegetarian bodies are going to fight back and say this is unnecessary,” says Easterbrook.
But with private corporations given far more scope in the US to fund political parties (with the meat and meat processing industry handing over $1.7m in the 2014 political cycle alone) there is reason for thinking those proposals will be met with serious consideration.
In the EU, MEP Andrieu has insisted that lobbyists are not behind backing for the proposals on this side of the Atlantic. “It’s not about lobbying or anything like that, it’s about common sense and consumers,” he told journalists at a press conference in April.
“There will be a lot to do on this upfront, a lot of creativity that will be needed, but I think it’s important. People that want to eat less meat should know what’s going on to their plate.”
But when Allen hears the argument that many would say this is a defensive move from a threatened industry, he takes a slightly different tack. “Yes, we are trying to fight our corner,” he says. “And why not?
“I don’t see why people would expect us to just roll over and say yes, by all means walk all over us and do what you like. I don’t see that as a criticism - this is the industry standing its ground.”
The TofuTown dairy labelling case
In 2017, German food company TofuTown found itself before the European Court of Justice. The company had been selling plant-based products under names such as ‘Soyatoo tofu butter’ and ‘Veggie cheese’, an approach German consumer protection group VSW claimed breached EU law and risked misleading consumers.
TofuTown, on the other hand, argued the indicators ‘tofu’ or ‘veggie’ were sufficiently clear to avoid confusion.
The ECJ ruled designations such as ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ could not be legally used for plant-based products, and the addition of “description or clarifying additions indicating the plant-based origin” did not negate that.
As a result, though widely regarded as ‘milk’ alternatives, the likes of soy, almond or hazelnut drinks can’t market themselves as ‘milk’ - a restriction some have sought to circumvent creatively by using terms such as ‘mylk’ instead.
Those pushing for similar restrictions on meat alternatives say the ongoing and meteoric success of the plant-based drinks industry, even following this ruling, is evidence that such a change won’t hamper the growth of plant-based.
But, says Mark Banahan of The Vegan Society, the situations are not equivalent. Not least as this high-profile case merely clarified existing law around dairy products.
“The initial dairy regulations from the EU came into force in the 1980s, so a lot of these products have developed and matured and become popular in light of that ban,” he says.
What’s more for dairy, it was never about consumer confusion, points out Ronja Berthold of the European Vegetarian Union. “The dairy denominations introduced in the 1980s were made with the express objective of establishing privileges for dairy against competing substitute products. It was a market protection tool.”
What about lab meat?
It might be sausages and burgers made from processed vegetables and plant protein that are the subject of scrutiny right now. But could - or should - these same restrictions extend to the cultured meat scientists say could be on our supermarket shelves within a few short years?
In the US it’s already very much part of the debate. The North American Meat Association, for instance, has said it does in fact want lab-grown meat to be referred to as meat, to ensure new products are not able to shirk any of the regulations applied to traditional meat.
Other beef and farming groups, meanwhile, have taken a different view, pushing for the restrictions on terms to extend to products grown in labs, also in the name of food safety. The most restrictive proposal, in Washington State, even calls for the sale of lab-grown meat to be a crime, with research funding from the government barred until the technology can be deemed safe.
Though currently a “totally different area, outside the scope of this regulation”, said Quorn’s Geoff Bryant when addressing MPs last month, the fact remains that many major meat processors are heavily investing in the technology - including the likes of Tyson Foods. And for that reason alone, the way in which such restrictions on labelling apply to lab meat could become a key sticking point.