Veggie Burgers Are Back On The Grill: EU votes in favour of plant-based meat in naming debate

November 3, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

On Friday 23 October the European Parliament voted against a proposal to ban the use of meaty terms such as “burger” and “sausages” on vegetarian products. 

What does this mean?

Plant based products have long been marketed as vegetarian alternatives to traditional burgers and sausages. However, the meat industry is fighting back. They feel the use of meat terms is misleading for consumers who might buy vegetarian products by mistake. Copa-Cogeca is Europe’s largest farming association; alongside lobbyists, it sees this language as “cultural hijacking”. Meat lobbyists therefore put a proposal to the European Parliament which would ban vegetarian products from using meat terminology. 

However, vegetarian advocates and producers of plant-based products directly oppose the proposal. They fear the ban will slow the exponential growth of plant-based eating which they see as key to curbing the climate crisis. Those against the amendment included Greenpeace and WWF, as well as large food processing companies Unilever and Nestle. They directly contest the meat lobbyists’ claims of confusion as plant-based products are clearly labelled as vegetarian. In fact, a House of Lords study in 2019 found only 4% of consumers had accidently purchased a vegetarian product. The European Parliament eventually sided with vegetarian advocates and ruled against the changes.

What's the big picture effect?

The plant-based product industry is currently booming, much to the detriment of meat farmers. Over the last five years, sales of meatless products in Europe have increased by 73% and British based company Meatless Farm recently raised £31m in equity to support their global expansion. Had the proposal been passed, any companies exporting to Europe would have been legally obliged to follow the terminology ban. In order to expand globally, Meatless Farm would have been forced to bear the cost of rebranding and potentially losing the familiar identity of their newly built company. Although the UK would not be bound by the EU’s decision (as we are in the Brexit transition period), this marks a clear example of how UK businesses will still be influenced by EU law post Brexit. 

As society is becoming increasingly conscious of its environmental impact, consuming less meat is an accessible way to live more sustainably. To promote a plant-based lifestyle, the labelling of products needs to be as clear as possible. For example, it was suggested veggie burgers could be rebranded into “veggie disks”. However, Jasmijn de Boo of ProVeg International argued the term “burger” was key for “communicating characteristics that consumers are looking for”. The change in naming might have resulted in confusion and a decrease in sales of plant-based alternatives. The European Medical Association said the proposal was “out of step with the current climate”. With persuasion from Greta Thunberg, MEPs ultimately recognised the environmental benefits of promoting plant-based alternatives to meat; the suggested law was rejected. 

As the result came in The European Consumer Organisation praised the “common sense” decision.  MEPs are likely to have been swayed by calls that ruling in favour of meat lobbyists seemed out of step with the EU’s initiatives to decrease meat consumption to fight climate change. Whilst this result is certainly a win for vegetarian advocates, the struggling meat industry will need to address its sustainability practices as the veggie burger survives another day. 

Report written by Amber Allen

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