The plant-based market is booming in Europe and predicted to grow in the coming years. Allied Market Research expects the market will increase to €2.4bn by 2025, from €1.5bn in 2018.
The UK is one of the markets leading the way in plant-based products. According to accounting multinational Deloitte, the UK is the largest market in Europe for consumption of plant-based products – accounting for around 40% of the European meat substitutes market.
The marketing of plant-based alternatives has caused controversy in recent times. In 2017, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) judged that purely plant-based products could no longer use dairy names, such as ‘milk’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’, or ‘yogurt’.
And in 2019, the European Parliament’s agriculture committee backed a ban on vegetarian and vegan products using terminology traditionally associated with meat – such as ‘steak’, ‘sausage’, ‘escalope’, and ‘burger’ – on their labelling and product descriptions.
This proposal has yet to go before parliament. But when it does, and if it is backed by a majority of MEPs, vegan and veggie burgers could be renamed vegetable ‘discs’, and sausage analogues marketed as veggie ‘tubes’.
With the UK due to withdraw from the European Union at the end of this month, what would such a regulation mean for plant-based products post-Brexit?
Implications for the UK
Insight & Commercial Policy Officer at the Vegan Society, Louisianna Waring, said much uncertainty remains regarding this proposed regulation. “As it stands today, I believe there will be decisions made at the end of this month, or at the beginning of next month, about what will happen in European Parliament.”
It is also uncertain whether the UK will ‘follow suit’ once it leaves the EU. “I imagine that we may, to make trade easier,” said Waring at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum last week in London.
What is certain, is that the meat-related terminology debate is not particular to the soon-to-be EU-27. In the UK, ‘originator’ meat-free brands such as Linda McCartney Foods and VBites have been using meat-related terminology for years.
Linda McCartney Foods, established in 1991, sells products marketed as ‘Vegetarian Sausages’, ‘Vegetarian Meatballs’ and ‘Vegetarian Pulled Chicken’. Similarly, VBites – which first entered the UK market in 1993 – sells ‘Meat-Free Schnitzels’, ‘Meat-Free Quarter-Pounder Burgers’ and ‘Fishless Fishcakes’.
Such terminology ‘gets a bit of controversy today’, said Waring. Another to have been implicated in the debate is ‘innovator’ brand Vivera, we were told, which sells its ‘Plant Steak’ into major retailers, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Such terminology is ‘causing some issues within the market’, the policy officer continued.
Why the controversy?
The Vegan Society takes no issue with meat-related terminology being used for meat-free products. However, there are plenty that do.
In the UK, meat producers across the country say such terminology is deceptive. And that even the term ‘meat substitute’ implies such products offer a similar nutrition profile to the real thing.
“We are increasingly concerned about the labelling of plant-based products and the trend towards using terms that are synonymous with meat, i.e. sausages, steaks, burgers, and ham,” head of UK trade organisation the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) Nick Allen told FoodNavigator.
“We get even more concerned when we see products on shelves labelled ‘meat-free meatballs’ and vegetarian ‘Hoi Sin Duck’. Whilst reluctant to encourage yet more legislation, we do think it is time this was looked at closely as it is misleading the consumer and playing tricks on them.”
The BMPA’s primary concern relates to the ‘nutritious benefits’ of meat, and ‘intensively processed’ analogues. “They should not imply that they are a substitute or replacement for the nutritional benefits you get from eating meat, unless they can prove that is the case,” said Allen.
“We would venture to suggest that if the boot was on the other foot, and the meat industry started creating, for example, a meat product that looked like a carrot or some other vegetable and called them ‘meat carrots’, there would be a massive outcry from certain quarters and I suspect calls to ban the products.”
While no ‘meat-related’ bans exist at present, certain meat-free brands are already steering clear of ‘meaty’ terminology for their products.
UK retailer Iceland, for example, describes its ‘No Bull Burgers’ as ‘quarter pounders’. Waitrose is selling is vegan sausage substitute as ‘Spanish style whirls’, and Tesco’s Plant Chef range includes Cumberland-style ‘bangers’.
The term ‘bangers’ wouldn’t necessarily be regulated under EU or UK law, “but, we all know what that terminology [means],” commented the Vegan Society’s Waring.
Such examples hint at a shift in marketing terminology, she continued, yet couldn’t say “this is a direct result of these proposed changes, or if [these companies] are just doing it off their own back.”
How consumers are responding to these more ‘creative’ product names, and how they would in the future were a blanket ban to come in, has yet to be tested.
According to one survey, however, one in four consumers do support a ban on traditional meat-related words being used for vegetarian products.
The survey, commissioned by Ingredient Communications, collated responses from close to 1,000 consumers across the UK and US, including vegetarians, pescatarians, and meat-eaters.
Of those surveyed, 25% disagreed that words like ‘sausage’, ‘burger’ or ‘steak’ should be used in isolation for vegetarian offerings.
If meat-related names were banned, the respondents said their preferred names for sausages would be ‘rolls’. The top name for burgers was ‘patties’, and the most popular name for vegetarian steaks was ‘portions’.
Commenting on the impending parliamentary vote, Sam Jennings, fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST), said she was intrigued to see how consumer acceptance of such labelling decisions would play out.
“It will be interesting to see how the marketeers are going to get around describing some of these new processes, and whether consumers will indeed accept them.”
Catherine Tubb, senior analyst at think tank RethinkX, similarly expressed interest at how marketeers will ‘get around it’. “Because they will,” she said at the event. “The demand is there. People cannot make this stuff quick enough…it’s just the supply that is the limiting factor.”
Challenging the proposed ban
Unsurprisingly, the Vegan Society does not support the proposed legislation. In a 14-page letter sent to European regulators last year, the charity said a ban would contravene European citizens’ right to be informed about how the plant-based goods should be consumed, denying people seeking out meat-free options ‘the benefits offered by EU law on clear labelling’.
At the time, Vegan Society advocate Dr Jeanette Rowley said the proposal was ‘not aligned’ with EU policy on diversity.
“It is not in the public interest and, if implemented, would have a disproportional impact across society by affecting the daily functioning of all public and private entities that provide food.”
At the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum, the Vegan Society’s Waring elaborated on why the proposed ban is ‘such an issue’ for the charity, and why it ‘should be stopped’.
“There are plenty of words being used as descriptive terms within the food market,” she said, citing the ‘beef tomato’ as an example, “No one thinks it has beef in it”.
‘Vegetable fingers’ are sold by several brands, including Birds Eye, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco Plant-Chef. “I don’t think anyone thinks [such products have] fingers in it,” the policy officer continued.
And what about Bernard Matthews’ ‘Turkey Dinosaurs’? Here, the company is using a ‘dinosaur’ as a descriptive word and shape. “And that’s how we classify a burger,” we were told, “it’s more of a shape than a [meat-related term used] solely to classify meat.”