Alternative meats held back by confusing labelling laws

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The legal status for marketing and labelling claims remains unclear in Europe ©iStock/Sarsmis
The legal status for marketing and labelling claims remains unclear in Europe ©iStock/Sarsmis
Europe must clear up the regulatory “uncertainties” that surround the marketing and labelling of meat alternatives, experts have warned.

The EU is a “hotbed”​ of research and development in meat analogues and plant-based meats, noted UK think-tank Chatham House in a new analysis​, and these products could potentially bring a raft of environmental, economic and social benefits.

However, there is a “high degree of uncertainty”​ regarding how these products can be named and marketed. Court cases have filled the gap where clear policy should be, and this could start to stifle growth, investment and innovation.

France and Germany have already made life difficult for manufacturers of these alternative products. In April 2018, the French National Assembly tabled an amendment to President Macron’s agriculture bill that prohibits using meat terms to describe plant-based foods. That decision was based on the European Court of Justice’s ruling in 2017 that soya and tofu products cannot be marketed as milk or butter.

Whether such labelling is really “deceptive”​ is a moot point. Those in the meat and diary industry assert that it definitely is – and don’t have to look far for political support to back them up. Those in the business of making and selling alternatives suggest the terms simply convey information on what consumers can expect of a product. Indeed, the Holy Grail for food scientists is to make the alternatives indistinguishable from conventional meat so meat eaters can be swayed into giving them a try. 

“The decisions that [EU policy makers] take now – on the regulation, labelling and marketing of meat analogues, for example – will have a significant influence on the industry’s direction and pace of growth,”​ explained Chatham House in a report published with support from Compassion in World Farming and Humane Society International.

Labels: the sticking point

One of the major bottlenecks is labelling. There are no specific regulations on plant-based ‘meat’ or cultured meat, so the general labelling rules laid out in the Food Information to Consumers Regulation apply. This means they have to be clear, precise and not misleading. So, what terms should brands be allowed to use?

This is something the European Commission is likely to consider during a review of the labelling of vegan and vegetarian food, due to get underway this year. Its advice could be critical to the success of plant-based meat alternatives, but more research is needed to explore consumer attitudes towards both plant-based and cultured meats.

Initial studies suggest that the terms used could make a big difference. “Clean”​ and “slaughter free”​ are likely to be more attractive than “lab grown”​ for example. But the challenges don’t end there – the “yuk factor​” also needs to be considered for cultured meats, as does the (perceived) nutritional quality of meat analogues and their safety compared with conventional meat. Plant-based meat products tend to contain lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and calories, and often contain higher levels of micronutrients such as zinc, iron and calcium. Protein content can also be on a par with meat.

There are also concerns relating to the use of genetically modified organisms in the process, as well as the environmental benefits. Plant-based meats tend to have a much smaller environmental footprint than meat from livestock, but the life cycle analyses of cultured meat are more “speculative”​, noted Chatham House: “Until such time as cultured meat is being produced at scale in industrial bioreactors – at which point it may be assumed that cultured meat will have been approved under EU regulation and investments will have been made in the necessary infrastructure – it is not possible to assess fully the resource intensity of production.”
Still, the environmental impact of livestock is in the spotlight. Only this week, scientists warned of an “alarming​” rise in levels of methane – a potent greenhouse gas produced by cattle. And a report by Barclays, reported in the Financial Times, warned of the regulatory risks on the horizon for food and farming businesses – a “methane tax”​ for example would make meat more expensive and weaken profitability for companies.

With the combination of aggressive regulatory change and shifting diets there is every chance that meat alternatives – if marketed well – could take sizeable chunks of the meat market in the years to come. This could have considerable benefits for critical policy priorities like climate mitigation, reduced antibiotic use and public health.

However, it’s a highly politicised issue, and unless Europe’s policymakers clear the regulations up, there is a danger that more decisions will be made in courtrooms and shaped by third-party interests. As Laura Wellesley, one of the new report’s authors, noted after a meeting with MEPs to discuss her findings: "… policymakers have a very important role to play in raising awareness about the impacts of our current consumption – not just environmental but also public health. It's also the role of policy makers in supporting innovation in the right direction, in creating a clear and fair regulatory environment, in removing those perverse incentives that we do already see that are supporting unsustainable means of production,​" she told EUObserver.

In her report, she also called for a proactive rather than reactive approach to novel food safety assessments. By clearing the regulatory landscape, the EU could “pioneer international standards for this new industry, thereby strengthening its position as a hub of innovation and contributing to a supportive global environment for European meat analogue companies wishing to export overseas”.​ The EU would also be at the forefront of innovation in the sustainable resource economy and “a global leader in the meat industry of tomorrow”.

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