New EU law on plant-based food labelling threatens to prohibit the use of words and familiar containers

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» New EU law on plant-based food labelling threatens to prohibit the use of words and familiar containers

Recent news reports have highlighted that the European Union is set to bring in new legislation, covering the way vegan plant-based foods can be labelled. It is imperative that everyone is made fully aware of the extent of the new proposals because the new legislation will affect us all.

European Union law already limits how the plant-based, dairy alternative food manufacturing sector can label its products. The words ‘milk’, ‘cream’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’ can’t be used on labels because the dairy industry wants to protect its dominance, and make alternative plant-based products difficult to market and sell. The law that restricts the plant-based sector from using these words goes back some decades.

Due to the recent surge in demand for plant-based dairy and meat alternatives, both the meat and dairy industries are concerned that they are losing their dominant foothold in the food sector, and now propose amendments to existing EU legislation to make it even more difficult for manufacturers of plant-based alternatives to market and sell their products.

The proposals are comprehensive and, if implemented, will affect not only plant-based food manufacturers, but also consumers, shop owners, cafés, restaurants and the entire range of public authorities, such as schools and hospitals, who need to serve vegan food to those in their care.

Colourful veggie burger sliders

With regard to alternative milk products, in addition to not being able to use the words ‘milk’, ‘cream’, ‘cheese’ etc. to describe food products, manufacturers will also be prohibited from using words such as ‘style’, ‘type’, ‘imitation’, ‘alternative to’, ‘to be used as’, ‘flavour’, ‘substitute’, ‘like’, or any other similar word that helps the manufacturer explain to the consumer what type of replacement product the food item in question is.

According to the lawmakers, labelling soya milk as ‘soya alternative to dairy milk’, or even ‘soya drink, to be used as milk’, is exploiting the reputation of dairy milk. Lawmakers also argue that the use of these terms confuse consumers, and even go so far as to claim that the vegan plant-based alternatives mislead consumers as to the nature or essential qualities of the product. In a desperate attempt to disrupt the plant-based manufacturing sector, lawmakers also aim to prohibit the use of common sense descriptions on any inner packaging, and any other useful advertising material that would help consumers understand what they are buying.

Because the dairy industry believes that the plant-based manufactures are misusing ‘dairy’ words, the proposals for new law go even further; manufacturers will no longer be able to use their current packaging or containers because the dairy industry believes the use of current packaging gives a false impression of the food inside. This means that vegan yoghurt cannot be called ‘yoghurt’, or ‘alternative to yoghurt’, and could not be packaged in the familiar yoghurt pot.  In a further attempt to impact the plant-based sector, lawmakers propose an additional general cover all legal clause to render unlawful ‘any other practice liable to mislead the consumer as to the true nature of the product’.

Proposals for new law also deal with words such as ‘steak’, ‘burger’ and ‘sausage’. Again, due to the increase in demand for plant –based alternatives, lawmakers aim to prohibit any use of such terms to describe, promote or market food products made up of proteins of vegetable origin on the grounds that they are misleading.  It would become unlawful to label products in familiar ways such as ‘veggie sausage’ and ‘veggie burger’. Instead the agricultural committee would like the plant-based sector to use terms such as ‘veggie disc’ and ‘veggie tube’.

soy milk

Clearly, if implemented, these proposals will affect everyone, including all those who provide for vegans, for example school teachers and health care staff. It will generate confusion about what a product is, what it can be used for, how it might contribute to a meal, what kind of packaging it comes in, where in the supermarket it can be found and how it might be incorporated into a common sense menu.

All proposals for new EU law must be examined carefully to ensure that they do not cause disproportional hardship to stakeholders. In addition, the EU is currently implementing measures to reduce red tape, make law easy to understand and implement, and ensure that the needs of small businesses are taken into account. These proposals for new law do not take into account the needs of the plant-based manufacturing and consumer sectors, and are not aligned with the current move to make EU regulation better for small businesses.

These new proposals are relevant to UK citizens despite Brexit, as it is likely that the UK dairy and meat industry will lobby the UK government to try and obtain the ‘protections’ given to their European counterparts. In addition, following Brexit, UK visitors to European countries will undoubtedly be inconvenienced by the lack of clear labelling and visual clues, such as familiar containers in which they expect to find the food items they are searching for.

Through its international reach, The Vegan Society will do everything in its power to ensure that these new proposals do not become law, and following Brexit, we will continue to provide support to the global vegan community. To help us in our work, you can object to the new proposals by writing to your MEP asking that they give urgent attention to this matter.

By D Jeanette Rowley

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