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 manufactures 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, manufactures 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


Dear Vegan Society, thank you for this great vegan advocacy in action. One of the many reasons I am a member. Great work, on behalf of vegans and would be vegans everywhere. Your efforts are appreciated, with thanks and kind wishes.

Read, your article rather worrying?

Is there any petition to sign or way to get support from the public to assist with this?

The vegan movement is riding a wave at the moment. Rather than fighting issues over the use of dairy words on plant-based products in the courts wouldn't the money be better spent on a huge campaign to create and market new words nothing to do with the dairy industry. My personal opinion is that not being able to use dairy language on labels goes against commonsense however, vegan products can stand in their own right. Backed with a social media campaign, celebrity backing, sponsorship of main stream events and sensationalism to get into the main stream press, it must be possible to evolve our language in a fun and perhaps slightly mocking fashion that will serve to make the new vacabulary cool and recognisable to all. Adverts with generations of people eating the cheese of their age with the name of their age. The time is right for veganism to lead in both ideas and language NOT to have to beg for the use of existing language or be made to feel they need the coat tails of dairy. If you can't beat them, if they won't let you in then do it on your own terms and put your money where it is needed selling new language; a glossary of like for like terms presented in a fun way; get on Good morning Britain, get on the bill boards, leave the expense and relatively low profile of courts out of it. It breaks my heart to see young up and coming forward thinking producers having to angst over labelling alone. The journey of marketing product should be fun and creative not fearful and stunting. Promote new language for their sake make new language the new commonsense and the new spend. It could be wicked!!!!

Well, I am a vegan, and a member of The Vegan Society. I have just read the article and, whilst I am open-minded to being convinced that I may be mistaken, my reaction is that great, that would be good law, apart from the bits about the shape of the containers. Frankly, I do not want my food to be labelled as if it is some ersatz version of something made from (m-word) with maybe bits of (m-word) products in it as if people want a bit of it in there or so what if they find it is in there. For me, the answer is to coin our own set of words and to be proud to use them exclusively for vegan products. If we need to design a new package type based on say a truncated cuboctahedron or whatever, then let's go for it. As far as I am aware, Alpro does not use the words referred to on its products or put that they are alternatives to those products. So, a meal of butterbean purée discs served with long grain white rice and a tomato purée with herbs gluten-free sauce would be great. But why use discs, that could be used for any food. Let us coin a word for a disc of food that is truly vegan and cannot be used for vegetarian or anything else. Likewise a word for a tube that is truly vegan. Anyway, surely a tube has a hole through the middle lengthwise, I suppose the word is a cylinder or something like that. Anyway, we could coin a new word with a specific meaning and we do not need to use an (m-word) term to define the shape, we can use mathematics. Have you tried 3D Builder in Windows 10? that software could be helpful for this. We could coin the words, get them registered as certification trade marks for The Vegan Society or however intellectual property law experts advise and then we and people who want vegan food need not use the parlance of those who use (m-word) and they cannot use our special words. And we can try to make sure that there is no mix-up with our special words being used for vegetarian food that is not vegan. I appreciate that my views on this are very different from those in the article and I fully accept that I might have missed something. Do we really want their parlance used to label our food? I say no. Would using their parlance on vegan food cause confusion to consumers as to what exactly they are getting? Certainly the packaging shapes is an issue for me, but as for the parlance I opine that it would be worth making a clean break from the parlance that is sometimes linked to (m-word) products and (d-word) products. We are vegan to avoid such practices, I would welcome avoiding the words that are sometimes associated with them. Would the law mentioned cause confusion or would getting it defeated and using the (m-word) parlance cause greater confusion? This needs careful consideration as to which way to go with it and it may well be that people might read my comments and consider them but nevertheless not agree with what I am saying. Imagine a packet of pea purée "tubes", labelled with a Vegan symbol and also a Vegan Society Certification Trade Mark that they are (whatever our new word happens to be) where that word has a precise definition in trade mark law, and the definition is also available on The Vegan Society website and put in a document and sent for Legal Deposit to The British Library. By the way, if you want to suggest such new words, please send them in correspondence to The Vegan Society, and please do not post them in public as that might mean that they could not become registered as certification trade marks - I am not certain about that but best to be cautious just in case.

I live in Sweden and I needed to find an alternative to cream cheese but for a long time I couln't find out what to buy because none of the labels gave this information. In the end I guessed on the grounds that the manufacturer of this vegan spread usually produces vegan "cheese" I guessed right but it would have been so much easier to just have it printed on the label. If dairy has such a good reputation, why is the dairy industry so scared?

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