Saturday

31st Oct 2020

Opinion

When is a 'veggie burger' not a veggie burger? Ask MEPs

  • A ban on using meat names such as 'burger' or 'sausage' for vegetarian products also goes against consumers' choices for more sustainable food (Photo: Chris Isherwood)

"You have to murder to call it meat" was the cutting catchphrase that concluded a spoof English language ad from the fictitious 'international meat industry' lobby group on a recent primetime Dutch TV show Zondag met Lubach.

This parody masterfully lampooned and debunked the meat industry's claim that the use of meat denominations, such as "burger" and "sausage" are confusing to consumers. And that such "surreal" meat names for plant-based products should be banned.

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Some MEPs have yielded to this protectionist demand by the meat industry, by pushing for the adoption of an amendment to the Regulation (EU) No 1308/2013 establishing a common organisation of the markets in agricultural products, which is scheduled to be voted on at the European Parliament's plenary session next week.

While such satires highlight the absurdity of the proposed "veggie burger ban" (as it has become commonly known), the debate has a more serious side.

For a start, this gratuitous discussion on meat denominations risks exposing legislators to ridicule and is fodder for Euroscepticism.

It is redolent of previous discussions on EU over-regulation, such as for bendy bananas and wonky cucumbers, which have been used as stick to beat the EU with for years.

If adopted, a ban on the term "veggie burgers" would be another prime example of unnecessary interference of the EU in matters that are - for all but the animal agriculture industry - a non-issue.

Together with many other animal protection, environmental and food NGOs and purveyors of plant-based meat substitutes, the Humane Society International is fighting against this proposed ban.

We believe that it would in fact reduce consumer clarity and undermine the EU's consumer protection agenda by needlessly introducing uncertainty around the naming of plant-based products.

To date, reasonable compromise proposals to use qualifiers, such as "vegetarian", "vegan" and "plant-based", which NGOs and the veggie burger manufactures fully support, have been rejected during parliamentary negotiations.

Labelling plant-based products in this way would easily preclude consumer confusion. Not that consumers are confused in the first place.

Getting more technical, it should also be noted that adopting such a restrictive measure on meat names would also contradict the mandate of the common market organisation (CMO) as defined by Article 40(2) (TFEU), because banning the use of meat denominations for plant-based products would essentially amount to prioritising the interests of consumers of meat over consumers of non-meat products.

Not a sausage

Indeed, it is a disproportionate measure that would unfairly disadvantage the producers of plant-based products for the benefit of animal-protein producers who would gain exclusive use of terms such as "burger" or "sausage".

This would be of significant detriment to existing businesses that have built up brands, product portfolios and intellectual property based on meat names that could be restricted by such legislation.

One could also argue that such a measure would be unnecessarily trade-restrictive for any non-EU manufacturer wishing to market their veggie burgers and the like in the EU.

It is wholly unacceptable for legislation to throw up unnecessary barriers for the growth of a burgeoning sector of the food industry that has developed products catering to the nutritional needs of a growing number of consumers who are seeking to reduce or eliminate animal products from their diets.

Recognising these developments and seeking to retain their market share, even some traditional animal-protein producers have jumped on the sustainability bandwagon in past years and have started to produce plant-based protein products as well. Any veggie burger ban would be against their business interests too.

A ban on using meat names for vegetarian products also goes against consumers' choices for more sustainable food. Plant-based foods usually have a significantly lower climate and environmental impact compared to animal-based foods, such as meat.

In its Farm to Fork Strategy, even the European Commission has finally recognised the need to transition to more sustainable plant-based diets. If adopted, the proposed amendments to the CMO regulation would be tantamount to undermining the Union's own food and climate strategies.

CAP reform should not be cynically seized by a minority of agriculture industry driven MEPs as an opportunity to discourage more environmentally friendly food choices that align with the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as mandated by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate agreement.

Reducing both the production and consumption of meat and other animal products by adopting a more sustainable diet is one of the easiest ways that we can help reduce emissions and combat climate change. A straightforward way that consumers, especially those who favour convenience and readymade foods, can substitute meat is by choosing products like veggie burgers.

This month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution supporting a 60-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

How would EU citizens be able to take the institution seriously if a few weeks later it voted to ban the use of meat denominations for the very plant-based foods that are needed to be able to help achieve that goal?

Author bio

Dr Joanna Swabe is senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International/Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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