Updated 07.14.2020 – The French government is the latest aiming to tighten “transparency” rules and exclude “meaty” names from vegan meat and milk food labels. France’s economic ministry detailed the new act in a recent communication to the European Commission.
This development follows a long-running debate in the EU—and elsewhere—about the language surrounding vegan products. Specifically, whether plant-based food should use words typically associated with animal products like milk and meat.
Article 5 of France’s new Act states: “The names used to indicate foodstuffs of animal origin shall not be used to describe, market, or promote foodstuffs containing vegetable proteins. A decree shall set the proportion of vegetable proteins beyond which this name is not possible.”
“Article 5 prohibits the use of names used to indicate foodstuffs of animal origin, to describe, market and promote foodstuffs containing vegetable proteins, beyond a threshold which will be set by decree,” explained the French government.
In a statement sent to LIVEKINDLY, the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) said that the new act could lead to “complications and opacity” for food products in general. The primary reason suggested for the updated legislation is better transparency and the risk of consumer deception by plant-based foods. In reality, explained the EVU, this risk is minimal.
“The image of the gullible consumer unable to discern a meat-based food product from a plant-based one–even if plainly distinguished by the product name–is paternalistic at best and an insult at worse,” explained the statement.
Labeling Laws and Vegan Food
According to a study conducted by the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, just four percent of German customers have ever mistakenly bought either a vegetarian product or an animal-based one in place of the other.
The EVU said that this shows the general public remain untroubled by the alleged confusion of labeling. While lawmakers defend the new act as a defense of French traditions, the EVU highlights well-established use of “meaty” words on vegetarian produce.
“Because the vegetarian nature of meat alternatives is important in terms of generating sales, producers and retailers communicate it clearly on the packaging,” continued the EVU’s statement.
It added: “Renaming established names and brands with ‘non-meaty’ fantasy
denominations […] would provide no further clarity for consumers of meat and would be unnecessarily confusing to consumers of non-meat products.”
“Consumer confusion is claimed as being the motivation and yet no plausible evidence has been presented,” Ronja Berthold, the Head of Public Affairs at EVU, told LIVEKINDLY. “One starts wondering whether such legislation is aimed at impeding the marketing and sales of plant-based alternatives.”
EU Law and the Single Market
Luca Bucchini, the managing director of Hylobates Consulting, said that increased transparency is important. But that the new act may have a far-reaching impact on the French food industry.
Speaking to Food Navigator, Bucchini said that national regulations mean the “increasingly perfectionist French market” could become restrictive. “There are obvious advantages in having an integrated food supply chain across Europe,” he continued. “And dismantling it is an important choice.”
“The idea of the single market is that an artisanal Swedish food manufacturer can sell its products in France,” explained Bucchini. “Without expensive legal advice and application of specific French rules, by just following EU law; that’s why food labelling was almost fully harmonised.”
National initiatives, such as France’s new act, reduce the consistency of EU law across Europe. As a result, food businesses located outside France may need to alter their strategy to adhere to national regulations rather than relying on existing EU guidelines.
This will also impact plant-based and vegan alternatives produced outside of France but popular with French consumers. It will also set a standard that could encourage other EU countries to adopt similar national legislation.
“It’s fair to predict other Member States will follow suit to introduce such restrictions,” added Bucchini. “Probably to the detriment of French food.”
Labeling Laws Around the World
In the U.S., some state legislators have already introduced bills to censor the use of meat and dairy terms on plant-based foods. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), this type of label censorship could result in genuinely misleading labels and fewer options overall for consumers.
States with bans or restrictions include Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Mississippi. However, vegan brand Upton’s Naturals and the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) worked with the Institute for Justice to file a successful federal lawsuit challenging the Mississippi ban.
Mississippi law no longer considers plant-based foods mislabeled when they combine “meaty” words with vegan, plant-based, or comparable descriptions. A marketing tactic most meat-free brands employed anyway. Before the federal lawsuit, companies such as Upton’s Naturals could have faced fines of up to $1,000 per “offense” under the ban.
GFI claims that such label censorship is both unnecessary and, in the US, unconstitutional.
“Clearly, these bills are not meant to protect consumers,” explained GFI. “Instead, as many legislators have admitted openly and explicitly, including Louisiana Sen. Francis Thompson, label censorship bills are ‘[meant] to protect the industry.'”
“Missouri’s legislature became the first to pass label censorship in 2019,” said Scott Weathers, Senior Policy Specialist at GFI. “[And] the state’s consumer protection found “no evidence” of consumer confusion over the labeling of plant-based meats.”
“What’s really going on is that cattlemen’s associations in many states are worried about the new competition. But instead of competing fairly in the free market, they’ve enlisted friendly state legislatures to give them an upper hand,” added Weathers.
According to a recent report, the global vegan food market could reach $31.4 billion by 2026. The report, authored by Allied Analytics LLP and published by Research and Markets, indicates an increase of 10.5 percent from 2019.
Some experts predict that the global vegan meat market alone could be worth $6.5 billion by the same year. EVU itself represents approximately 30 million vegetarians and vegans across Europe.
Despite certain cultural obstacles to a fully plant-based diet in France, vegan demand is on the rise. According to the French research institute Xerfi, the vegetarian and vegan market in France grew by 24 percent in 2018.
While vegetarians and vegans make up just 2 percent of the total population, flexitarianism is increasingly popular. Xerfi reported that flexitarians make up approximately one-third of the total population, nearly 23 million people.
In general, consumers see vegan food as a healthy, sustainable, and ethical alternative to animal products. A growing body of research shows a link between red meat and increased risk of chronic health conditions. These include heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.
Animal agriculture and meat production also has an impact on the planet. The meat and dairy industries are leading contributors to the ongoing climate crisis. Beef production, in particular, is particularly harmful. It requires 160 times more land than common plant-based staples.
“It is clear that from an environmental, climate-, health- and animal welfare-related perspective Europeans have to cut down on their meat consumption. Plant-based alternatives should therefore be promoted, not thwarted,” said Berthold.
“‘Meaty names’ for vegetarian alternatives to meat products convey important information on what consumers can expect of a product,” she added. “These denominations guide consumers in their purchase decisions in a straightforward way.”