Government Should Keep Its Hands Off Our Tofu Sausages!

You may or may not want to eat something called a “veggie burger,” but you probably have a good idea what is in it: Vegetables. And not meat. Similarly, you also probably have a good idea what is in a “hamburger”: Beef, not ham. And a “cheeseburger”: Not just a big cheese patty, but cheese melted on top of beef (yum!). Consumers are pretty savvy about these things.

Sometimes governments try to offer “clarity” through labeling regulations, but in doing so they often make things more confusing. Last year we wrote about U.S. government efforts to prevent dairy-free milk products from using the word “milk” on their packaging. Now, the European Union’s legislative body, the European Parliament, is going after the millennial scourge of plant-based products with “meaty” words in their name (avocado toast appears to be safe for now). As The Guardian reports:

Veggie burgers are for the chop, a Brussels committee has decreed, to be replaced by the less palatable-sounding “veggie discs”.

And it won’t be just bean or mushroom burgers condemned to the food bin of history. Vegan sausages, tofu steaks and soya escalopes could all be approaching their ultimate best-before date, after a vote in the European parliament on revisions to a food-labelling regulation.

In a move that some MEPs suspect bears the fingerprints of the meat industry, the parliament’s agriculture committee this week approved a ban on producers of vegetarian food using nomenclature usually deployed to describe meat.

The protected designations would include steak, sausage, escalope, burger and hamburger, under a revised regulation that passed with 80% approval. The measures will now be voted on by the full parliament after May’s European elections, before being put to member states and the European commission.

The French socialist MEP Éric Andrieu … said MEPs had voted purely in the best interests of the consumer and it should be seen as an opportunity for vegetarian brands to make their mark.

“We felt that steak should be kept for real steak with meat and come up with a new moniker for all these new products. There is a lot to be done in this front, a lot of creativity will be needed,” he said. “People need to know what they are eating. So people who want to eat less meat know what they are eating – people know what is on their plate.”

We’re not so sure that calling a veggie burger a veggie disc is going to help these meat alternative producers “make their mark.” What on earth is a veggie disc anyway? Can we play frisbee with it? (We would probably still be curious to try it though, as long as it comes with fries). But more broadly, this proposed change to EU food labelling laws raises some important policy questions, and not just for Europeans, as there is a similar effort underway in the U.S. to prevent plant-based foods from using terms such as “beef” or “meat” in their labels.

Last year, Missouri passed a law reserving the use of the term “meat” for products that are “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” The Missouri law has been challenged in court, and a settlement is expected soon.  However, that hasn’t stopped other states from taking up similar legislation, and there is also a push by the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association to restrict the use of the terms “beef” and meat” at the federal level.

Before the competition for who can create the most restrictive labelling requirements gets out of hand, EU and U.S. lawmakers should consider the following: Does the additional information, or lack of information, add clarity for consumers, or does it create confusion? Let’s consider the Missouri law. As NPR reports with regard to Tofurky plant-based deli slices: “Under the law, those aforementioned Tofurky deli slices would have to be described like ‘protein textured’ rather than ‘meaty’ or ‘soy roast beef.’” First of all, we have serious doubts that anyone has ever described something they have eaten as “protein textured.” And as a related point, it is worth considering whether the requirements of the labelling regulation provide any helpful information about the product.

Second, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association claims that plant-based food producers are misleading consumers by using terms associated with traditional meat products that come from live animals. For instance, they claim that the Beyond Meat company’s use of the term “burger” in its “The Beyond Burger” is a prime example of such misinformation. We encourage you to peruse the Beyond Meat product site and let us know if you find it misleading. The label for the Beyond Burger says “Plant-Based Burger Patties” in bold font on the front of the package. Is this misleading? Is there any reason you might think this came from a cow? To take another example, while sometimes people seem confused about whether a hotdog is a sandwich, no one thinks it actually contains dog meat, do they? Consumers are generally quite knowledgeable about these things. And if they are confused, they can either read the list of ingredients, ask someone, or Google it.

The French MEP pushing for these strict rules in the EU suggested that we look to Europe’s “foodie culture” in understanding the importance of the law. But foodie culture isn’t frozen in time, it evolves as people become concerned about other things, such as the humane treatment of animals, for instance. Shouldn’t policy be flexible enough to let consumers express their actual concerns and allow companies to respond?