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Explained: Why the European Parliament thinks vegetarian burgers are burgers too

It had been proposed that calling plant-based food ‘steaks’, ‘burgers’, and ‘sausages’ amounted to ‘cultural hijacking’. The EU lawmakers have sought out a middle path.

Written by Pooja Pillai , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: October 26, 2020 4:46:01 pm
A plant based vegetarian burger is pictured in a restaurant as the European Parliament will vote on whether to ban plant-based products from using terms such as 'burger', 'sausage' or 'steak', in Brussels, Belgium October 21, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Francois Lenoir)

On Friday (October 23), the European Parliament said that plant-based foods which do not contain any meat can still be labeled “sausages”, “steaks” or “burgers”. The body was voting on a proposal, backed by the farming and meat lobby, that terms like “veggie burger” and “veggie sausage” be banned on the grounds that it misleads consumers.

The proposal, which was opposed by the Plant-Based Food Alliance — comprising environmentalists, food advocacy groups as well as corporations such as Unilever and Ikea — was shot down by EU lawmakers with one of them, Nikolaj Villumsen, later tweeting, “Reason prevailed and climate sinners lost.” He proposed eating a veggie burger in celebration.

Why was the ban proposed?

The backers of the proposal argued that to describe food made entirely of plant-based ingredients as “steaks”, “burgers” and “sausages” amounted to “cultural hijacking” and undermined the work done by millions of European farmers and livestock sector workers.

To highlight what they believe to be a misleading tactic by food companies, the campaign, ‘Ceci n’est pas un steak’ (this is not a steak), drew its name from the iconic painting by French surrealist, Rene Magritte, called ‘The Treachery of Images’. The painting depicts a pipe with the caption, “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe).

Jean-Pierre Fleury, chairman of the farming lobby Copa-Cogeca which backed the ban, said in a press release, “Certain marketing agencies are using this to deliberately confuse consumers by promoting the view that substituting one product for another has no impact on the nutritional intake. This path is paved with good intentions, but it will open the door for other confusing denominations to emerge in the long term.

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What were the arguments against the ban?

In an article published ahead of the vote , the Good Food Institute, a US-based non-profit that promotes plant-based alternatives and is one of the opponents of the ban, said that the proposal contradicted EU’s sustainability goals because it “muzzled” plant-based alternatives which have “the potential to tackle climate change, prevent further biodiversity loss, and reduce pressures on land and water”.

The article also argued that there was no evidence that consumers “are struggling to decipher the difference between plant-based steaks and beef steaks”, and that those who are picking plant-based foods are doing so deliberately.

It described the attempts to label green alternatives as “meat-free discs” or plant-based tubes”, instead of calling them “burgers” and “sausages”, as “bizarre”.

The Plant-Based Food Alliance also issued a press release saying that the ban was against “growing consumer interest in alternatives to animal-based products” and that it would “distort competition on the EU food market” and would have a negative impact on the plant-based food value chain which is “offering opportunities to EU farmers and the EU food industry”.

Is this a clear win for those producing and promoting plant-based alternatives?

No. Even as EU lawmakers struck down the ban on extending traditional food names to new plant-based alternatives, it upheld the demand of Europe’s dairy lobby that milk and dairy alternatives be kept out.

This goes back to a 2017 case against German company TofuTown in which the European Court of Justice ruled that it couldn’t use words like “butter”, “milk”, “cheese” and “cream” to describe its plant-based products. On Friday, the European parliament tightened the restrictions and said that even descriptors like “yogurt-style”, “butter alternative” and “creamy” could be prohibited.

Moreover, this battle isn’t just restricted to Europe.

In the USA, for example, many states have banned the use of names like “sausage”, “burger”, “jerky” and “meat” to describe plant-based foods. In Arkansas, in fact, the ban was extended to the use of the term “rice” for alternatives made of cauliflower or broccoli.

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