updated on 12 January 2021
QuestionWould banning 'meaty' names for meat imitation products have increased clarity for consumers?
On Friday 23 October 2020, the European Parliament voted on various amendments to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which, if passed, would have banned 'meaty' names for non-meat products in varying degrees. Fortunately, trust in consumer ability to understand the difference between a 'meat' burger and a 'veggie' burger prevailed, and the amendments were not passed.
Given the massive growth in the veggie and plant-based market it was not surprising that this vote came back to parliament, and unlike the dairy sector where there already are protections in EU law, the meat sector does not have the same benefit. So why has this been such an issue?
The Vegan Society saw a record number of 400,000 people pledge to try 'Veganuary' in 2020. 'Meat-free' days are on the rise and new plant-based products seem to be launched every day.
Plant-based products and brands have an established place in the market. The CAP amendments would have meant that 'Quorn Sausages', a product by a long-standing brand, would have to change the product name to something much less clear – changing ‘veggie sausages’ to ‘veggie tubes’ is hardly a marketer's dream or really that descriptive.
In reality, the brand is so established that these amendments would, if anything, confuse consumers as to why they now have to search for a 'compressed soy protein disk' instead of 'vegetarian burger'.
Quorn Foods wrote on LinkedIn recently that in their 35 years, "not once has a consumer complained to us because they bought one of our products by mistake". The argument that consumers may be misled by words such as 'sausage' and 'burger' does not appear to hold much weight, particularly as consumers are meant to take the label as a whole. Even the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has previously backed Quorn Foods, allowing them to use the word 'chicken'.
While the EU's Farm to Fork strategy supports plant-based diets due to them reducing the "environmental impact of the food system", the amendments put forward would have forced plant-based product manufacturers to reconsider their branding, labelling and most importantly their product name. At a time when finances are already precariously balanced for many, the cost of having to totally rebrand for no real benefit to consumers would have been difficult to stomach. This is a far cry from the horsemeat scandal and someone trying to pass a non-meat product off as meat.
Why is it useful to call it a 'sausage'?
There is an argument that the average consumer understands that a vegetarian sausage does not contain any meat but has a sausage shape, so might be best enjoyed with some mash and gravy. In many ways the humble sausage or burger has become its own ubiquitous descriptor in the same way that all vacuum cleaners are hoovers regardless of brand.
The truth is the possible compositions of a 'burger' have been expanding for years. It may have started as a hamburger or beef burger but you can now order a chicken burger, a venison burger, or basically anything you want. “But they're all still meat!” I hear you say. They are – but what about a fish burger? Where do we draw the line?
If the labelling is clear as to what it is made from, calling something a ‘burger’ is now primarily an indication of how best it is served. When described in this way, it is actually useful to consumers (not misleading) and supports the EU's Farm to Fork strategy by allowing consumers visibility of their options.
Store positioning and an expanding market
Supermarkets and shops also tend to clearly demarcate between 'meat' and 'vegan/vegetarian' sections when it comes to fresh food. It is not in their interest to intentionally confuse consumers and spark complaints.
The meat industry may have seen these CAP amendments as protecting against an erosion of quality, with 'steak' and 'burger' not being able to be used for products intending to replicate or imitate the one they have produced with a worse quality.
While quality does play a part, there are many reasons people eat plant based – moral, health or the climate. Often the reasons consumers buy a 'veggie' burger is exactly because it is the opposite of a beef burger – whether it's the environmental impact, the fact it hasn't come from an animal or its different health implications. The qualities which mean a veggie burger is enticing to a consumer are often in direct contrast to its meat counterparty.
These amendments would not have been about protecting an established name from being undermined by a raft of cheaper, bad quality imitations. They would have caused confusion where it wasn't needed and made it harder for consumers to make choices about their diet. And, given that we'd all just call it a veggie burger anyway, it probably would have had little impact.
Kirsty Poots is a newly qualified solicitor in the regulatory, compliance and investigations team in DWF’s London office.