Should meaty names for plant products be banned?

The EU is on the verge of forbidding vegetarian products from using words like ‘burgers’ and ‘sausages’ on packaging, but the Vegan Society believes the move could be costly and confusing.

24 April 2019
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image credit: Getty Images

Vegetarian and vegan food could be headed for some unappetising descriptions if the EU has its way, but could the legislation also end up costing public institutions a lot of money?

As many in the food industry will already know, at the start of April, the European parliament’s agriculture committee approved a ban on vegetarian producers using traditional terms to describe meat.

If these food labelling regulations are voted into effect next month, plant-based products would no longer be able to employ words like steak, sausage, hamburger and escalope on packaging. Instead, vegan and veggie burgers could become ‘discs,’ while sausages could be described as ‘tubes.’

The Vegan Society has waded into the battle, claiming the measures are being driven by a meat industry running scared from the competition posed by plant-based producers and will result in excessive administrative burdens and confusion among consumers.

The charity has gone so far as to legally challenge the plans in a formal letter to EU officials, on the grounds that the ban breaches the fundamental human rights of vegans.

It added that the proposals would not only impact vegans, but also public authorities that currently serve vegan food, such as government departments, health providers, education establishments, police forces and prisons.

Public authorities are obliged to provide plant-based food to vegans in their care as veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, it said, meaning excessive amounts of time and money would have to be spent on revising menus in public sector institutions if the proposals are accepted.

Meat lobby accusations

As part of its efforts to influence the upcoming vote, the Vegan Society also argued that alternative vocabulary put forward such as ‘vegetable disc’ doesn’t constitute clear food labelling under EU consumer law, because such terms don’t describe or facilitate ease of interpretation, nor do they make it easy to perceive the food item in question.

“As consumers are increasingly moving away from eating animals, the demand for vegan products is growing,” said George Gill, CEO at the Vegan Society. “There’s no denying that meat, dairy and egg industries are feeling threatened by this and desperately trying to restrict the marketing of vegan products.

“These proposals have little to do with consumer protection and instead are motivated by economic concerns of the meat industry. We are calling on EU officials to reject these irrational measures for vegan meat alternatives to be banned from using the qualified conventional terms everyone has been using for decades.”

In its letter, the organisation described the ban as “an attempt to bolster a depressed agricultural economy” and warned they would “create confusion across the EU” if put in place.

The move has also been opposed by environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace and Birdlife, who are concerned about the impact it would have on sustainable food.

But the French socialist MEP Éric Andrieu, who is responsible for overseeing the legislation, told The Guardian that the prohibition was just “common sense” and appealed to Europeans’ sense of foodie history.

“The meat lobby is not involved in this,” he commented. “It has generated a considerable debate among the political groups and a large majority wanted to clarify things.”

Andrieu added the decision had been made with the best interests of consumers in mind and it should be seen as an opportunity for vegetarian brands to make their mark.

“We felt that steak should be kept for real steak with meat and come up with a new moniker for all these new products. There is a lot to be done in this front, a lot of creativity will be needed,” he said. “People need to know what they are eating. So people who want to eat less meat know what they are eating – people know what is on their plate.”

Labelling more than just a description?

The Vegan Society’s letter additionally alleged that the proposed measures contravened EU consumers’ right to be informed adequately as to how goods can be used and denied the vegan community the benefits offered by EU law on clear labelling.

Dr Jeanette Rowley, vegan rights advocate at the Vegan Society, added that European food labelling laws state food information should enable consumers to identify and make appropriate use of food. She claimed the use of ‘meaty’ names informs the consumer how the plant-based products can be cooked and used.

“It is not in the public interest and, if implemented, would have a disproportional impact across society by affecting the normal daily functioning of all public and private entities that provide food,” she explained. “This EU measure threatens to cause widespread administrative chaos, confusion and time wasting trying to understand how to plan a meal that includes a veggie disc or a veggie tube. The widespread impact of this unreasonable and costly proposal should not be underestimated.”

The Vegan Society’s 14-page letter includes an appendix with over 100 examples of plant-based food descriptors being used in the public and private sectors.

This is not the first debate to arise over vegan food labelling, and perhaps given the precedents the Vegan Society shouldn’t expect much of a response. Back in 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled dairy terms could not be employed to market products made with soya or tofu. Meanwhile, France has already banned the use of meat terms to sell non-animal products.

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