European parliamentarians are set to vote next week on legislation that could take “veggie burgers” off the shelf.
The European Parliament is considering two amendments that would prohibit the use of meat and dairy-related names for plant-based foods, which would also include terms like “vegan sausage” or “yogurt-style.” These amendments fall under one of the three files that make up the mammoth Common Agricultural Policy reform, specifically covering how products can be marketed.
The meat and dairy industries argue that using such terms is misleading to customers. The push to ban terms like veggie burgers, which have existed for decades, comes as the alternative meat market is growing more mainstream. It also comes at the time when the European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy is promoting healthier and more sustainable foods, another potential threat to the meat and dairy sectors.
So far, MEPs seem divided on the topic of restricting food terms, with no clear majority for or against the measures. It’s also very likely that lawmakers will end up voting on more “compromise” amendments on the issue.
The plant-based food industry argues the amendments on the table won’t help the EU transition toward a more healthy and sustainable food system envisaged under the Farm to Fork strategy, which says explicitly that “moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat … will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system.”
One of the proposed amendments says that “the meat-related terms and names that are currently used for meat and meat cuts shall be reserved exclusively for edible parts of the animals.” The amendment adds that designations such as “steak,” “sausage,” “escalope,” “burger” and “hamburger” should be “reserved exclusively for products containing meat.”
A similar law was passed in France earlier this year.
Plant-based food companies and consumer groups are fighting to convince MEPs not to approve such measures, which would require product name changes across the Continent.
“Banning common terms like ‘veggie burger’ is a patronizing move that threatens to cause confusion where none exists, as companies would be forced to use unfamiliar terms to describe their products,” said Elena Walden, a policy manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, a lobby group representing the alternative meat sector.
“This drastic change to existing law is unnecessary. People aren’t buying veggie burgers by mistake. They’re buying them because they recognize the benefits of these products for their health, the environment and animal welfare,” she added.
According to a survey conducted by consumer organization BEUC in 2019 on respondents from from 11 EU countries, the majority of Europeans aren’t concerned about the “meaty” denominations used by plant-based products — 42.4 percent believe these names should be permitted provided that the products are clearly labelled as vegetarian, 26.2 percent do not see any problem at all with using such names, while only around 20 percent do have a problem with the practice.
“The use of culinary ‘meaty’ names on plant-based foods … makes it easier for consumers to know how to integrate these products within a meal, and as such should not be banned,” BEUC said in a letter to MEPs.
But this is not the view of many European farmers. Last week, several farming associations launched a campaign called “Ceci n’est pas un steak,” meaning “this is not a steak” — a reference to Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe. The campaign urges lawmakers to pass the amendment.
“We believe that it is in the interest of the consumers to know if certain denominations contain meat,” said Pekka Pesonen, head of the Brussels-based Copa-Cogeca farming lobby. “In fact, it would be unfair competition to bring new products — being exclusively plant-based — to the meat specific names.”
“If the purpose is to promote plant-based products, why should this be done at the expense, tradition and work done by other product categories?” he added, stressing that he doubts that promoting “ultra-processed chemical products” is really in consumers’ interest.
The second amendment concerns a similar issue, but for the dairy sector.
EU law already bans the use of dairy terms like “milk,” “cheese” or “butter” for vegan products that don’t come from animal milk (barring some exceptions). That means “almond milk” isn’t allowed, but “almond beverage” would be.
The amendment in question goes even further, seeking to prohibit names like “yogurt style” or “cheese substitute,” as well as more descriptive terms like “creamy.”
“The current plant-based food descriptions are functional and inform consumers, whereas passing amendment 171 … would cause profound confusion,” said Jasmijn de Boo, vice president of campaign group ProVeg.
“There are countless existing references to foods’ textures, consistency, function, flavor or origin, such as ‘peanut butter’ or ‘cream crackers.’ It would be beyond laughable if all these products and food preparations had to be renamed just to protect dairy milk,” de Boo added.
She said the new law could even prevent companies from stating that their products “contain half the amount of fat of a dairy product,” or cause “lower carbon emissions than cheese.”
“The effect will be truly disproportionate and could plunge the entire plant-based food sector into chaos,” de Boo said.
But Pesonen from the farmers’ lobby Copa-Cogeca said that thanks to the current regulations, “consumers know exactly what butter, milk or cream would stand for.”
“We all know what margarine stands for. And it is not butter or plant-fat butter,” he said. “And this requirement certainly has not stopped plant-based products from developing their market shares.”