In a recent vote, the European Parliament decided not to ban the use of meat-related names for plant-based substitutes, such as ‘veggie burgers’ and ‘soy sausage’. The vote was part of the massive reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the area that deals with how products can be marketed.
The discussion surrounding the denomination of plant-based meat substitutes is particularly timely given that the new strategy is to urge consumers to move towards a more plant-based diet in order to reduce “the risk of life-threatening diseases and the environmental impact of our food system”.
Included in the list of proposed amendments was a request to restrict the use of meat-related terms such as ‘burger’, ‘sausage’ and ‘steak’ for products that actually contain no meat. European meat and dairy organisations, including Copa-Cogeca (the voice of European farmers and agri-cooperatives), the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union and the International Butchers’ Confederation, among others, argued that using such terms for plant-based products is misleading.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were divided on the subject. The different sectors were divided as well. The plant-based food industry argues that such a move hinders Europe’s transition towards a healthier and more sustainable food system, one that – under the EU Farm to Fork strategy – calls on consumers to move to a more plant-based diet. They argue that current labels are not confusing and that consumers buy plant-based products to address concerns related to their health, the environment and animal welfare.
Europe’s farmers and farming associations did not agree. In October, Copa-Cogeca, along with several other farming associations, launched a campaign against the misuse of meat denominations. “The meat denomination debate is not an attack on vegan or vegetarian products,” explained Paul-Henri Lava, senior policy advisor at the poultry processors’ organisation AVEC.
“We accept and recognise the consumer’s choice to opt for vegan products,” he continued. “However, what we cannot accept is that vegan and vegetarian products use the reputation and heritage of some meat denominations to sell products which are completely different and have nothing to do with them in terms of taste, composition and nutritional value.”
Organisations like the World Resources Institute have spent years exploring what language works and what does not when it comes to describing plant-based foods in the US and the UK. Its conclusion is that the way foods are named does indeed significantly influence their uptake. The institute suggested moving away from words like ‘meat-free’, ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’, in favour of a focus on ‘provenance’, ‘flavour’ and ‘look and feel’. An example provided in the final report revealed that changing the name ‘meat-free sausage and mash’ to one of the suggested alternatives had indeed boosted sales. Using ‘better sausages and mash’, for example, boosted sales by 6.5%. Switching to ‘field-grown sausages and mash’ boosted sales by 51.3%, while opting for ‘Cumberland spiced veggie sausages and mash’ boosted sales by 76.2%. Note that all 3 examples still use the word ‘sausages’ to describe a plant-based, non-meat product.
Apparently, though, it seems that European consumers are not overly concerned about product names. A 2019 survey conducted by the European consumer organisation BEUC found that most Europeans are not bothered by the use of meat-related words in plant-based product marketing. In fact, 42.4% of consumers believed that the use of “meaty” names should be permitted provided that the products are clearly labelled as vegetarian or vegan. One in five consumers think that the use of “meaty” should never be allowed on vegetarian or vegan products.
“The use of ‘meaty’ names on plant-based products makes it easier for consumers to know how to integrate these products in a meal and, as such, they should not be banned,” BEUC concluded. “The denomination of vegetarian and vegan products should neither mislead consumers nor discourage them from buying these products.”
The imitation industry has taken advantage of a European loophole to hijack these powerful common names in its favour and make huge profits from that
Pekka Pesonen, head of Copa-Cogeca, disagreed: “If the purpose is to promote plant-based products, why should this be done at the expense of tradition and work done by other product categories?” Lava agreed, saying that meat denominations are deeply rooted in EU cultural heritage. Ham, escalope, fillet, sausage and cordon bleu are all traditional names that have been derived from the hard work of farmers and producers, he said. “Although these products can have different local interpretations depending on the European region, everybody knows what to expect when they buy them,” Lava said. “This is why there has never been a need to protect them.”
As the marketing of meat alternative products grows, the meat sector believes its common heritage is at stake. “Without protection, tomorrow an escalope could easily be made of carrot, soybean or potato starch, while for many years consumers have always known that it was made of poultry meat,” said Lava. “The imitation industry has taken advantage of a European loophole to hijack these powerful common names in its favour and make huge profits from that.”
Jean-Pierre Fleury, chair of the Copa-Cogeca working party on beef and veal, agreed. “I am sorry to say that this is an obvious case of cultural appropriation,” he said. “Certain marketing agencies are using this to deliberately confuse consumers by promoting the view that substituting one product for another has no impact on the nutritional intake. This path may be paved with good intentions, but in the long term it will open the door to the arrival of other confusing denominations… We are about to create a ‘brave new world’ where marketing is disconnected from the real nature of products, one which blithely amalgamates big business interests and values,” he added.
We know that nationally, some member states have already put forward some initiatives to protect meat sales denomination
In late October, MEPs voted 284 in favour of the amendment and 379 against, with 27 abstentions. The MEPs, however, did approve an amendment to further limit the use of dairy-related names for plant-based dairy alternatives such as “cheese substitute” and “yoghurt-style”. EU law has already banned the use of ‘milk’, ‘cheese’ and ‘butter’ on vegan products that do not come from animals. ‘Soy milk’, for instance, is not allowed but ‘soy drink’ is.
“Of course, we are disappointed with the result of the vote,” said Lava following the announcement, “given that, initially, back in 2019, we knew that the Agriculture Committee supported our amendment. We fail to understand the logic of those MEPs who voted for an amendment to protect milk denominations but rejected our amendment to have the same protection for meat.”
The organisation plans to continue its efforts to protect meat denominations. “We know that nationally, some member states have already put forward some initiatives to protect meat sales denomination,” said Lava, pointing to France. “This shows that our argument is justified.”
In the meantime, Lava suggests that the meat-alternative sector should follow its own path and get creative with new names, as margarine producers once did. They did not hijack the term “butter” to promote the new alternative, he pointed out. “Today the two denominations coexist, and margarine has become a popular alternative to butter,” he said in conclusion.