Tuesday

17th Sep 2019

Interview

EU should clarify rules for plant burgers and lab meat

  • The 'impossible burger' is made entirely out of plant-based ingredients (Photo: Impossible Foods)

Laura Wellesley likes a burger "as much as the next person".

But as a researcher specialised in the link between climate change and eating habits, Wellesley is very appreciative of the carbon footprint of eating meat.

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  • Laura Wellesley, research fellow at Chatham House (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"The biggest change I have made to my diet in recent years has been to radically reduce the amount of any kind of meat products. I eat meat maybe once every three to four weeks," she told EUobserver in an interview.

On Tuesday (19 February) Chatham House published a new research paper, co-written by Wellesley, on the potential of so-called meat analogues.

"Meat analogues are the term we use to refer to a new generation of meat alternatives that achieve a degree of mimicry that we haven't seen before," said Wellesley.

The two main categories of meat analogues are plant-based 'meat', which is not really meat but is difficult to distinguish from the real thing, and cultured meat, grown in a laboratory.

According to Wellesley, meat analogues offer "a real opportunity to accelerate a shift away from diets that are rich in industrially-produced meat".

She spoke to EUobserver in the European Parliament earlier this month.

Tucked away in a corner on the seventh floor of one of the parliament's buildings in Brussels, Wellesley had just given a presentation of her preliminary findings to a handful MEPs - who were also able to taste some samples.

The fact that some of the fake meat was able to mimic normal meat was not to everyone's taste - in particular to those MEPs that had not eaten meat for years.

Then again, vegetarians and vegans were not the main target audience of meat analogues, said Wellesley.

"They are aimed squarely at meat eaters, rather than at vegetarians or vegans. They are trying to shift behaviours and eating patterns in a majority of the population rather than a minority," she noted.

Average meat consumption in the EU is not only above what is advised by health experts, but also has a severe impact on the environment and planet.

Not all vegans

A reduction by 50 percent of the consumption of meat, dairy products, and eggs in the EU would lead to 25 to 40 percent lower agriculture-linked greenhouse gas emissions, a 2014 study said.

"The message about reducing our meat consumption and diversifying eating habits and just relying less on animal agriculture is so powerful. It's not about everybody becoming vegan," said Wellesley.

"It's not about very strict rules. It's about looking for a means of eating that is largely plant-based, minimally processed, sourced from sustainable production methods," she said, adding that meat analogues were no silver bullet.

The report identified some potential hurdles for meat analogues to become popular.

"In the EU, where many of the frontrunners in plant-based 'meat' and cultured-meat innovation are located, current regulation and policy are largely supportive of investments and innovation in alternative proteins," it said.

However, while an EU regulation on so-called novel foods deals with cultured meat, there is "less clarity around whether plant-based 'meat' products are considered as novel foods in the EU".

One important issue will be how these alternative meat products will have to be labelled.

There is no consensus yet on how lab-grown meat - currently not authorised for sale in the EU - should be called.

But we can expect a big difference in public acceptance depending on the name, said Wellesley.

"Whilst it is difficult to test consumers' willingness to eat cultured meat, because it's not on the market yet, there are early indications that 'lab-grown meat' is a less appealing term to consumers than for example 'clean meat'," she said.

The power of labels

As for plant-based fake meat, some EU states are already putting up barriers.

French MPs decided in April 2018 that names associated with products of animal origin may not be used to market products that have a significant proportion of plant-based material.

This decision followed a European Court of Justice ruling in 2017, in which the Luxembourg-based institution banned the use of names like "vegan cheese" and "soy milk", saying EU law stated milk and cheese come from animals.

The Chatham House report points out, however, that the court did not specifically comment on meat products, and that names like steak and burgers are not narrowly defined in EU law.

"These terms could, in principle, be used for plant-based products so long as their use does not mislead consumers," the report said.

Wellesley noted that how policymakers respond to questions on regulating, naming and labelling will partly determine the future market of these new products.

"The decisions on those questions will likely have an effect on the future pace and direction of innovation in this space," she said.

"I believe that 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," the researcher noted.

"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 added.

GMO, but 'delicious'

Additional open questions are about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

A US product called the Impossible Burger is made out of heme, which the company summarised as the "unique molecule that makes meat taste like meat". It is genetically engineered from soybeans.

"The heme gives their plant-based meat the irony taste of conventional meat and the same reddish colour," said Wellesley.

"Whilst the product itself doesn't contain a GMO, it is produced from a GMO-substance, a source material that is genetically modified, so that raises questions for the EU market," she added.

EU member states have very different attitudes about GMOs, a politically controversial issue among many citizens.

"It is not clear how those products would be regulated if there was an application for them to be authorised for the EU market," said Wellesley.

But they are tasty, she said.

"I've tried both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger and both are excellent in achieving the meatiness that they aim for. Both are delicious."

Meat 'taboo' debated at Bonn climate summit

Animal agriculture is responsible for a significant share of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but until recently it 'was an issue that was really brushed under the carpet'.

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