What’s meat's beef with vegan burgers? The case against ‘meaty’ names for plant-based substitutes
“I have a big issue with meat substitutes. Not because they are substitutes, but because [their makers] are using meat denominations to sell their products better,” says Michael Gore, managing director of the Federation of Belgian Meat (FEBEV).
While plant-based meat substitutes have long been on the market, the category has exploded in recent years. According to Grand View Research, in 2019 the global meat alternatives market was already valued at $4.5bn. By 2025, the market is expected to reach an impressive $7.1bn.
Europe is a key player in the global meat alternatives market, currently growing at an estimated CAGR of 7.3%.
As the plant-based meat market grows, so too does focus on terminology. While meat alternative producers continue to market products as ‘vegan sausages’ or ‘plant-based burgers’, the meat industry argues such practices are unjust and should be outlawed.
Meat: the most ‘controlled’ sector in food
In Europe, the marketing of plant-based meat alternatives hit headlines back in 2020, when the European Parliament cast its final vote on an amendment concerning the use of ‘meaty’ terminology for meat-free products.
Amendment 165 proposed to prohibit terms such as ‘burger’, ‘sausage’, ‘steak’ or ‘escalope’ for vegetarian or vegan alternatives across the bloc. The 44 MEPs voting in favour and 10 who abstained where outnumbered by 116 votes against the amendment: in Europe, vegan burgers remained on the table.
FEBEV’s Gore laments this decision. At the Belgian Meat Office Round Table in Ghent last week, he told journalists plant-based meat makers are allowed to reap ‘advantages’ from the meat sector, while ‘leaving behind the challenges’ faced by meat producers.
The challenges Gore referred to lie in food safety and quality control. For European pork and beef production, for example, there is guaranteed control from rearing and feeding conditions, through transport, slaughter, cutting, processing, packaging, to storage and marketing.
In the EU, meat has a legal definition and set rules on how it should be declared in the ingredients list. Maximum levels of fat and collagen/meat protein ratios also exist.
“We are the only sector in the food [industry] that has so many controls, that has so many analyses to be performed,” said Gore. “We have legal definition on what meat is, what a sausage is, what a burger is.
“I have no problem with the fact that [plant-based meat] businesses are trying to sell their products, as long as they [use] wording that is representative of the product.
“The fact that they are using our names, where the legal denomination also requires us to do additional analyses and assessments to demonstrate conformity – which they do not have to do – is an issue.”
The ‘deception’ of plant-based meat and dairy
This particular debate concerning legal definitions and technicalities, the consumer is unaware of, according to Gore. However, the consumer is implicated, we were told.
Using ‘meaty’ terminology for plant-based products is ‘misleading for consumers’, the FEBEV managing director stressed.
The issue of deception received much attention around the time of the EU Parliamentary vote. The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which was against the ban, said that consumers are ‘in no way’ confused by a soy steak or a chickpea-based sausage, as long as it is clearly labelled as vegetarian or vegan.
“Terms such as ‘burger’ or ‘steak’ on plant-based items simply make it much easier for consumers to know how to integrate these products within a meal,” noted BEUC senior food policy officer Camille Perrin at the time.
But FoodNavigator understands that the potential deception, according to the meat sector, lies not in consumers mistakenly purchasing the wrong product, but in expecting a meat and plant-based product to have the same nutritional profile.
In using ‘meaty’ denominations, plant-based producers are insinuating the nutritional value of that product is identical to meat, or in the case of alt dairy, milk, said Belgian Meat Office manager Joris Coenen at the round table event.
“But oat juice is oat juice, and if you start calling it oat milk, all of a sudden people think it is something that can replace milk. In the end, it is a plant juice. This is the misleading element.”
Coen continued: “Meat has certain requirements, and that’s the point. The meat industry is [asking] for a level playing field. Let the rules be applicable for everybody else, just as it is for the meat sector…”
FEBEV’s Gore concurred, suggesting that distinctions between meat and alt meat, and dairy and alt dairy, need to be clear. “We see products coming onto the market as ‘milck’ just so it’s not identifiable as milk, which is total nonsense.
“[We must] regulate these types of issues as well, because they are common…Businesses are trying to identify themselves in that way to [better] sell their products.”
Plant-based meat and dairy: The state of play
Europe: In 2020, the European Parliament voted against an amendment that would see terms such as ‘burger’, ‘sausage’, ‘steak’, or ‘escalope’ used for vegetarian or vegan alternatives.
On the same day, the Parliament voted in favour of a ban of dairy-like terms – such as ‘almond milk’, ‘vegan cheese’, ‘yogurt-style’ and ‘cheese alternative’ – for dairy-free products.
The vote followed a 2017 ruling which saw the European Court of Justice ban the use of dairy names such as ‘milk’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yogurt’ for purely plant-based products – with the exception of coconut milk, peanut butter, almond milk, and ice cream.
France: In 2020, France took the decision to outlaw the use of words traditionally employed to describe meat products (with the exception of ‘burger’) for plant-based alternatives.
In July of this year, France published an official decree announcing the ban would be enforced from October 2022.
In the same month, France’s highest administrative court (Conseil d’État) agreed to grant a reprieve following a request from plant-based and alternative protein-focused association Protéines France.
Turkey: In Turkey, the government banned the production of vegan cheese alternatives this year. Turkish legislation already stated that the term ‘cheese’ cannot be used to describe dairy-free alternatives.
South Africa: South Africa announced plans to prohibit terminology such as ‘veggie biltong’ and ‘plant-based meatballs’ this year. An interdict has since been granted by the Johannesburg high Court.
Advocating for the ‘truth’
Not all in the meat sector agree energy should be spent on regulating plant-based substitutes.
According to Jos Claeys, CEO of the largest producer of pork in Belgium, the Belgian Pork Group, efforts would be better focused on ensuring the benefits of meat are well communicated.
“It’s not about denomination…I think we’re choosing the wrong battle. If [plant-based producers] want to call it a burger, or if they want to call it a sausage, or if they want to call it milk, whatever.”
For Claeys, the ‘biggest battle’ for the meat sector is ensuring the ‘true values’ and ‘qualities’ of meat are publicly conveyed. The Belgian Pork Group CEO particularly takes issue with ‘completely wrong’ reports linking the consumption of meat with cancer risk.
Back in 2015, for example, a study published in The Lancet Oncology titled ‘Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat’, concluded that processed meat was carcinogenic to humans, based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.
In 2019, new research came to light suggesting that red and processed meat is probably not harmful to health. “Based on the research, we cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease,” said lead researcher Bradley Johnston from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, at the time.
The study published in The Lancet has been since been proven ‘completely wrong’, suggested Claeys. “I think we should put more energy into bringing back the truth about what we are doing with meat and the values of meat…
“We are losing energy by fighting denominations instead of fighting wrong studies”
Gore’s position is ‘slightly different’, he told journalists. Is bringing the ‘right information’ effective if the audience is unwilling to listen? “In many cases, that’s the [issue]. Because they have their own agendas. In many cases, they do not want to hear what we are telling them.”
Claeys stood by his argument, suggesting that communicating ‘truth’ will prevail: “We cannot deny the light of the sun.”