Could veggie burgers, sausages and bacon be about to disappear from Europe, to be replaced by veggie discs, tubes and strips? In an astonishing move, it seems the EU may be preparing to ban meat free versions of meaty products from using the same terminology, apparently because the increasing popularity of plant-based food has spooked livestock producers.
Last week, a Brussels agriculture committee approved a ban on applying carnivorous nomenclature to meat free products. The proposal will be voted on by the EU parliament after European elections in May; if passed, it will then be put to member states and the European commission to ratify.
Whether or not this will be a major setback for a movement that is going from strength to strength, it looks as though the decision has been made with meat producers in mind. The growing appetite for sustainable food, particularly among young people increasingly aware of their responsibilities to the planet, is leaving the meat and dairy industry feeling threatened.
The man behind the legislation insists vested interests played no role, however. “The meat lobby is not involved in this,” said French socialist MP Eric Andrieu. “We felt that steak should be kept for real steak with meat and come up with a new moniker for all these new products. 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.”
France has form in attempting to obstruct the rise of plant-based foods. Last year, it passed a law banning makers of vegetarian and vegan foods from describing their products in terms traditionally associated with meat products. That proposal – an amendment to an agriculture bill – was put forward by an MP who is also a farmer. Like the anticipated EU ban, it seems lawmakers have no faith in the eyesight, taste buds and shopping skills of their electorates. They clearly believe voters lack the ability to tell a bean burger from a beefburger.
But just because it sounds ridiculous does not mean the new law won’t make it onto Europe’s statute books. In 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that plant-based alternatives to milk, butter and cheese may not use those particular words – and can slap a fine of €300,000 (£260,000) on companies that do not comply.
Green MEP Molly Scott Cato, a member of the agriculture committee, confirmed there was a suspicion the decision had originated with a meat industry panicking about young people moving away from eating meat. “It is a clear indication that [the industry is] worried about their market being undercut – and that’s quite a good sign,” she said. “There certainly didn’t seem to be a lot of consumer demand for it. It wasn’t as if people were buying veggie burgers and asking: ‘Where’s my meat?’ People are moving increasingly towards a plant-based diet, and young people at a terrific speed.”
It remains to be seen what names meat free products will adopt in the event of a ban, but the absurdity of the move was pointed up by Gregory Sams, the man who in 1982 invented the original VegeBurger. “‘Hamburger’ derives from the people of Hamburg, who ate their meat in a patty,” he said. “Thus it defines the shape of a product, not its component.”