The European plant-based alternative food market is forecast to grow to €2.4 billion by 2025, from €1.5 billion in 2018. This growth is evidenced by the increasing popularity of trends such as Veganuary, which saw its highest number of participants to date in 2020. An increasing number of food companies, including popular chains such as McDonald’s and Pret, have been expanding their vegan and vegetarian options. Lawmakers are now having to consider the regulatory effects of these market changes, an area which has historically been confusing and controversial.

Meat-free alternatives

On 23 October 2020, the European Parliament voted to reject proposals to ban plant-based products from using traditional ‘meat’ terms such as steak, sausage and burger. The ban was sought by farmers and the meat industry, whose argument is that the use of such words for non-meat products represents deceptive labelling and could mislead consumers. They contend, for instance, that the use of ‘meat’ terms on packaging of plant-based foods could imply such products offer similar levels of nutrition as meat. In the alternative, labels such as ‘veggie discs’ (burgers) and ‘vegan tubes’ (sausages) could be used to avoid confusion.

Vegetarian food companies, environmentalists and others have expressed concern that banning the use of such words may discourage consumers from trying plant-based alternatives, a shift in eating patterns which they regard as essential for the promotion of health, animal welfare and environmental sustainability. They dispute the contention that consumers are easily misled by such labelling, pointing out that plant-based alternatives have been around for decades and people know what they are buying. In 2019, the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee found that fewer than 4% of people had ever unintentionally bought a vegetarian meal, having confused it with a meat version. It is argued that a ban would be unnecessarily restrictive on a growing industry.

Dairy-free alternatives

In contrast to meat alternatives, lawmakers voted in favour of proposals for stricter labelling of plant-based dairy substitutes. They backed a proposed ban on terms denoting a likening to dairy, such as ‘milk like’, for products which contain no dairy ingredients. This approach was consistent with the existing decision of the European Court of Justice [1], in 2017, to ban many purely plant-based dairy products from using names such as milk, butter or cheese.

Commercial implications

The recent vote is reflective of the wider changes that relevant industry stakeholders are facing. As consumers become more adventurous and conscientious about the products they buy, and as the plant-based market grows, this will inevitably have a knock-on effect for the meat industry and its market share. It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that calls for stricter labelling of alternative foods are supported by some. Observing this trend, many established food and beverage companies are already attempting to manage the risk by expanding their range of alternative products (for example, in 2017 Danone acquired leading dairy-alternative producer Alpro).

Conclusion

It seems unlikely, then, that the European Parliament vote is the end of the story for the labelling of plant-based products. Pressure will no doubt continue for some sort of regulation as to what meat-free and dairy-free alternatives may be called. One possible compromise which might be put forward by those continuing to support greater regulation could see labels such as ‘veggie burgers’ allowed, as long as the packaging makes clear that it contains no meat. However, the impact this would have on consumers, if any, remains to be seen.

Overall, despite familiar terms associated with the plant-based market having been in the mainstream for many years, there is still no clear regime on labelling (especially considering the conflicting approach taken on meat and dairy products). With a growing market that businesses are adapting to and an increase in new products, regulating the language arising from these market changes is necessary for greater harmonisation across the bloc and to keep pace with social change.

The vote forms part of a wider plan to reform the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy and the EU Parliament must strike a compromise with member states on any final policy, including the proposed new restrictions on dairy labelling. However, with the Brexit transition period set to end on 31 December 2020, it is uncertain whether the UK will follow any final proposals. Given that the UK is the largest market in Europe for the consumption of plant-based products, the question of how to ensure both consistency and clarity in the regulation of labels definitely provides food for thought.