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8th May 2021

Opinion

Why is EU set to ban 'creamy' and 'alternative to yoghurt'?

  • If the amendment is implemented, plant-based foods would be forbidden from 'evoking' dairy products in any way, including useful descriptive terms such as 'creamy' and 'alternative to dairy' (Photo: Gaston Bruno)

On Thursday (29 April) the EU will decide on a controversial amendment that would severely restrict the marketing of plant-based-dairy products.

While the outcome is still uncertain, it's already clear that this is about more than just oat milk: the credibility of the EU and its green food ambitions are at stake.

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In its 2020 Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission urgently called for an accelerated transition to a sustainable food system.

And with good reason: a study published in Science magazine showed that even if all fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from the global food system alone would make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5C – and difficult to even stay below the 2C target.

One might think that, given this urgency, large-scale reforms would be under way for the agricultural sector.

But last October's Common Agricultural Policy vote shattered such illusions, with the European Parliament overwhelmingly voting in favour of business-as-usual, directing billions in EU taxpayers' money to unsustainable and damaging farming practices. The vote was seen by civil society as a severe blow to the commission's green ambitions.

A key element of the Farm to Fork strategy is the shift towards more plant-based diets.

The bulk of the EU food system's harmful impact on the environment is caused by the production of meat and dairy. The very least one might expect from the EU would be to not actively stimulate their consumption, but this is exactly what it does through its promotional subsidies which run to millions of euros a year.

The commission proposed to halt these subsidies in the original draft of the Farm to Fork strategy, but retracted them mere days before publication.

It seems that the EU´s nascent plant-based ambitions have been effectively quelled by the animal-agriculture lobby.

And now, this week's trilogue could constitute a lethal blow to the already-damaged credibility of the EU's food ambitions. Amendment 171 would actively hamper the consumption of plant-based alternatives by introducing a raft of new restrictions to plant-based dairy alternatives.

No 'evoking' dairy products

If the amendment is implemented, plant-based foods would be forbidden from 'evoking' dairy products in any way.

This could mean they could not be sold in familiar packaging such as cartons and that useful descriptive terms such as 'creamy' and 'alternative to yoghurt' would be prohibited.

Visual depictions of plant-based foods would also be forbidden if they were seen as resembling dairy – for example, a milky swirl on a package of oat milk.

Even essential allergen information such as "does not contain milk" could be construed as 'evoking' dairy. While the rationale is allegedly 'consumer protection', the amendment clearly has the dairy industry's fingerprints all over it.

It's little wonder, then, that the amendment was met with fierce resistance from the plant-based-food sector.

But what should give decision-makers even more pause is that both BEUC and CECU, two European consumer-protection authorities, condemned the amendment as having no justification whatsoever and in fact being counter to the interests of consumers.

The draconian amendment has been widely condemned by an extensive and diverse group of stakeholders, including 21 NGOs, a cross-sector group of 94 food companies, 90 percent of the Dutch parliament, and almost half a million citizens who signed a petition.

Even some representatives from the dairy sector have opposed the amendment, including the organisation 'Caring Farmers' and Berglandmilch, the largest Austrian dairy co-operative.

This leads to the question of who or what exactly this amendment is for.

Neither the European Parliament nor the commission have provided any clear justification for the argument that consumers need to be protected from plant-based-dairy terms. Who are these consumers that are misled by plant-based packaging? The supposed victims of accidental almond milk purchase have certainly never filed any complaints or launched a petition, let alone one signed by hundreds of thousands of people.

In a response to an NGO letter, the EU commission cited the history of the protection of dairy terms, which "has been part of the EU legal framework for the marketing of milk and milk products for more than 30 years". But what remains unclear is what exactly dairy products should be protected against, why they would require stronger protection than any other food group, and why these already-strong protections would need further strengthening now.

The commission even has the audacity to cite "fair competition and avoidance of market distortion", when it is clear the amendment does the opposite: it unfairly discriminates against sustainable alternatives to dairy.

This week, the EU will decide. Will it endorse an anti-competitive, environmentally reckless policy that serves no interest or purpose other than that of the polluting dairy industry? If so, it would be the last nail in the coffin of the Farm to Fork strategy. Who could take the EU's ambitions for sustainable diets seriously after that?

Author bio

Jasmijn de Boo is vice president of ProVeg International, an international non-profit organisation working to transform the world food system by replacing animal products with plant and cellular alternatives.

Disclaimer

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

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