plantbased milk oat cereal vegan

I never thought I’d be someone to utter the phrase ‘bureaucracy gone mad’. But that’s where I find myself. Frustrated and, yes, angry, at proposed new guidance cooked up by the Food Standards and Information Focus Group (FSIFG), which could enforce even stricter restrictions on plant-based food and drink companies using certain dairy-related terms in their branding and communication about products.

Apparently, calling something “not milk” or “an alternative to milk” might mislead Brits into thinking it is in fact… milk.

Dairy UK, the self-styled “voice of the dairy industry”, has been pushing for tougher guidelines for plant-based products since at least 2017. Years later, we see the endgame. A cynical attempt to damage plant-based competitors and make it harder for people to seek out alternatives to dairy – despite one in 10 people in the UK suffering from lactose intolerance, which is more common within certain ethnic groups.

The proposed new rules – which could come into force within weeks – would make the UK a bizarre international outlier, with a tougher stance than either the EU or US.

The UK is one of the most competitive markets for plant-based products. Forty-eight per cent of British adults now use plant-based milk alternatives in their diet. This is not a niche category.

There is no evidence that the status quo is causing confusion amongst consumers. A 2020 study by Cornell University found consumers are “no more likely to think plant-based products come from an animal if the product’s name incorporates words traditionally associated with animal products than if it does not”.

An independent survey of 2,000 UK adults we commissioned last month found more people believe the moon landings were faked than are confused by dairy descriptors.

The guidance is also antithetical to the UK’s legally binding net-zero commitment. The UK government’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) is clear that hitting net zero will require significant consumer behaviour change, saying government needs to “implement policies to encourage consumers to shift towards healthier diets, including… a 20% shift away from all meat by 2030 rising to 35% by 2050, and a 20% shift from dairy products by 2030”.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that in no other industry are spurious claims about consumer confusion being used to hinder ‘alternative’ competitors.

If the patronising logic being used by dairy lobbyists were applied to other industries, non-alcoholic “beer” surely should not be called beer, faux “fur” should not reference fur and electric “cars” should be banned or else leave consumers confused.

You may laugh, but when faced with an opposition that is immovable in the face of logical, reasonable argument, you have to point out the inherent absurdity. Especially in lieu of any effort to consult businesses or consumers in a version of the guidance that could be fit for purpose.

The plant-based sector is a Great Britain success story: more than 100 plant-based food startups are headquartered in Britain, attracting millions of pounds of investment. Some will be major employers of the future. We should be supporting these entrepreneurs, not restricting them with spurious arguments about consumer confusion just as they are establishing their brands.

There’s plenty of space for “milk” and “milk alternatives” to co-exist and offer consumer choice.