When the EU sends mixed-signals: the example of plant-based food labelling

By Katarina Jarc

You don’t have to murder to call it a burger, but when it comes to dairy, the situation is hairy

A few years ago, I took up the challenge of substituting dairy products with plant-based alternatives. Even though cheese IS life, I have to say I still succeeded in eliminating that deliciousness from my life for slightly longer than one year. It was far from easy, honestly. But, as with every period of our lives, this one also brought new habits, and to this day I still continuously saunter over to the aisles offering plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products. Needless to say, finding the right substitute to the mouth-watering taste and texture of cheese is not an easy task, especially with a lack of descriptive nomination on product labelling.

Because of the recent developments in labelling plant-based products in the European Union, customers’ confusion will reach previously unattained heights. On 23rd October 2020, the European Parliament (EP) cast its vote on two amendments impacting the future of plant-based product designations. Firstly, the MEPs rejected the ban on designations such as “vegan burger” or “chickpea sausage” for plant-based meat alternatives. The vote was a win for the plant-based food industry, but unfortunately the joy didn’t last long: in parallel, plant-based alternatives to dairy can now no longer be described by words implying a dairy product, such as “creamy” or “yoghurt-like”.

Back in 2017, the European Court of Justice had already prohibited the use of the word “milk” in products such as “almond milk” or “rice milk”, but this time, the two contradictory votes sent mixed signals to the European public. This might only enhance the disorientation and puzzlement of an average climate-change conscious European citizen wandering around the plant-based product departments. After taking the decision of reducing our carbon footprint by introducing more plant based products into our lives, shouldn’t we be rewarded with a straightforward description on packaging?

How many people will now choose dairy over plant-based alternatives due to the fast-paced environment we live in, which allows no time to comprehend and internalise the alternative descriptions that the plant-based market will need to come up with? The market’s creativity might severely deepen our confusion, as we can now expect a number of products with insufficient labelling, such as “vegan slices” without any further explanation. I mean, would you buy those slices while searching for a cheese alternative? It certainly does not appeal to me.

The central irrationality of the MEP’s votes on plant-based product descriptions is that words that imply meat origin are allowed, but words that imply dairy origin are not. The semantic argument dictating the degree to which a word implies a meat or dairy origin is at the moment far too vague to justify legislation prohibiting either. And further complexities arise during enforcement across all languages and cultures employed in the EU. The Oxford dictionary defines sausage as “a mixture of meat, fat, bread, etc. cut into small pieces, put into a long tube of skin, cooked and eaten whole or served cold in thin slices.” In contrast, cream is defined as “the thick white or pale yellow fatty liquid that rises to the top of milk”. It is very difficult to argue that one term is clearly more animal based while the other is more open to interpretation.

The decisions made by the EP placed political and commercial interests ahead of the democratic rights of every European to decide what they wish to call “milk”. The Farm to Fork strategy of the European Commission explicitly states it will “empower consumers to choose a sustainable alternative and (…) make it easier for them to choose it”. Words are created and defined by the culture in which they are employed and are capable of sometimes rapid changes in meaning. The EU should not disseminate confusion by sending mixed messages and preventing plant-based alternatives to dairy from being labelled in a straightforward, easily understandable manner. Most of all, it is not the job of the EU to define what “milk” is. That is something we as consumers should decide for ourselves.


Picture: Pexels, Polina Tankilevitch

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