EU rejects “veggie burger” ban but prohibits dairy-like names for vegan products

26 Oct 2020 — The European Parliament has rejected a proposal to ban the use of words like “sausage” and “burger” to describe vegan and vegetarian products, in what plant-based industry leaders describe as a “victory for common sense.” However, in a surprise move, MEPs also voted to ban any indirect reference to dairy products for plant-based foods, which means descriptors like “yogurt-style” or “cream imitation” will be prohibited.

While those in the plant-based space may be scratching their heads over the mixed messages coming out of the EU, the European Dairy industry celebrates what it sees as a victory to protect dairy terms. 

“Dairy terms such as ‘milk,’ ‘butter,’ ‘whey,’ ‘yogurt’ and alike are exclusively reserved for dairy products, and non-dairy products cannot hijack our dairy terms and the well-deserved reputation of excellence of milk and dairy. This is good news for the EU lactosphère, for our European consumers and citizens,” Alexander Anton, secretary general for the European Dairy Association (EDA), tells FoodIngredientsFirst. 

For months the EDA, alongside other agri-food organizations, has been calling for the protection of dairy terms, arguing that EU product definitions and marketing standards are crucial for the whole European dairy sector and assure the smooth functioning of the internal market for dairy products, as well as improve competitiveness and profitability and protect consumers from “deception.”

“The protection of dairy terms is rooted in the global (FAO & UN) Codex standard, and the European scheme has been an inspiration for legislators around the world. What it does is simply guarantee the unique quality of milk and dairy products,” Anton continues.

“If you buy a cheese or a butter, you know what you get, and there is no need to check the ingredient list. If you want to go for a non-dairy replacement, there will be less confusion in the future by marketing mimicry of the plant-based products.”

“I am more than surprised to see so-called consumer associations lobbying, jointly with global food giants, against the protection of dairy terms. They should be the first to defend the natural qualities of milk and dairy and the underlying standards. I simply cannot imagine that consumers would be okay with the idea of buying a “cheese” that is made out of water and modified starch with a bit of palm oil, colorants, flavorings and thickener,” he adds. 

MEPs voted down the proposed veggie burger ban amendmentConsumer confusion?
MEPs voted down the proposed veggie burger ban amendment – with 379 against, 284 for and 27 abstentions – after deciding that vegan meat names do not mislead consumers.

But at the same time, they “tied the hands” of plant-based dairy producers as they backed a clampdown on descriptors like “cheese-style,” and so on. Terms such as “almond milk” and “vegan cheese” are already banned on products in the EU, but last Friday’s vote goes even further. 

The EU argues that the dairy terminology proposal was supposedly intended to avoid consumer confusion. However, by and large, the plant-based sector disagrees. 

“Plant-based products are already banned from using terms like ‘milk’ or ‘butter’ – despite there being not a single piece of evidence to suggest consumers are confused by these words,” Louise Davies, head of policy at The Vegan Society, tells FoodIngredientsFirst. 

“Adding in a further restriction to stop terms that liken plant-based foods to dairy, such as ‘alternative’ or ‘style’, is going to stop manufacturers from accurately describing their products and mean that consumers actively seeking to reduce their environmental impact and shop more ethically will be poorly informed.” 

“We are perplexed by this decision by MEPs who should be doing all they can to support the consumption of plant-based products to address the growing climate crisis,” she explains.

Plant-based sector saddled with significant financial burdens
ProVeg International argues that in its most extreme interpretation, this could even mean a ban on the use of data to show that a product causes, for example, “half the carbon emissions of dairy butter” as this could be said to “exploit the reputation” of a dairy product.

“Although we welcome the European Parliament’s vote against the introduction of naming restrictions on plant-based alternatives to meat, where common sense has prevailed, we deeply regret its vote in favor of far-reaching and entirely unnecessary restrictions on the descriptions of plant-based dairy products,” says Jasmijn de Boo, vice president of ProVeg International.

“It is inconceivable to us just how the European Parliament could take such different positions on such similar proposals. Although the ban is supposedly intended to prevent consumer confusion, it is clear that it does nothing for consumers except confuse them.” 

“It is also a major blow to the plant-based dairy sector, one of the most innovative and sustainable in the wider European food industry. Plant-based dairy businesses could now be saddled with significant financial burdens and practical challenges around renaming, rebranding and remarketing of products and the potential of high legal costs,” de Boo notes.

ProVeg also argues this ban is also in direct contradiction of the EU’s stated objectives in the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy to create healthier and more sustainable food systems. The Farm to Fork Strategy explicitly states the need to empower consumers ‘to choose sustainable food’ and to make “it easier to choose healthy and sustainable diets.”

The Good Food Institute Europe, a non-profit working to accelerate plant-based and cultivated proteins, had previously called on national leaders on the EU Council to “clear up this mess” and reject restrictions on plant-based dairy products.

“The European Parliament has finally taken the ridiculous veggie burger ban off the table. This decision should bring an end to the imaginary crisis of consumer confusion over plant-based food. But it’s baffling that, at the same time, MEPs have tied the hands of the already-restricted plant-based dairy sector,” says Good Food Institute Europe’s policy manager Elena Walden.

“Terms like ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ are already banned for products made from plants, but this vote could forbid helpful descriptors like ‘yogurt-style’ and ‘butter alternative’ – further undermining the EU’s sustainability commitments,” she says. 

The GFI also points out that animal agriculture is responsible for 12-17 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that moving toward plant-based meat would reduce emissions by 30-90 percent. 

According to the EU Commission, the markets for meat and dairy alternatives are experiencing annual growth rates of 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

In addition, European consumers favor the use of meat-related terms for plant-based foods. A recent survey conducted by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) in ten10 Member States found that more than 68 percent of consumers support labels such as burger and steak for plant-based food, as long as the products are clearly labeled as plant-based or vegetarian. More than 250,000 people also signed a petition against the proposed restrictions.

While the exact proposals around “meaty” terms voted on last Friday are unlikely to resurface, some European countries are considering restrictions on the plant-based sector at the national level, and France has already introduced a ban on common “‘meaty”’ terms for plant-based food.

By Gaynor Selby

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