What’s the beef over meat-free marketing?

As Veganuary 2022 draws to a close, many of us would have seen the strategic marketing campaigns of advocates from both sides of the divide – farmers trying to sustain their livelihoods and vegans seeking further advancement of their ethical viewpoint.

Not just in Veganuary, but all year round would you find a trip to a supermarket difficult without seeing ‘meat-free’ bangers, soya steaks, and lentil burgers. However, what many do not realise is the militant opposition to such labelling by farming unions and even governments: for example, France banned the phrasing of ‘meat-free’ foods with inherently ‘meaty’ terminology: plant-based sausages, bull-free burgers, etc.

The arguments being made against the alternatives to meat seem futile and patronising, suggesting that we as consumers lack the capacity to interpret information on our food, and cannot sustain ourselves with diets that have, in fact, proved resoundingly successful and economically sound. The EU’s largest farming union, Copa-Cogeca, have referred to this as “cultural hijacking” allowing vegetarians to flood the market with misleading products. This accusation of producer misinformation seems to score no new public support, given that just 25% of British and European consumers consider ‘meat-free’ terminology misleading.

In 2020, the EU voted in favour of a plant-based dairy ban on dairy products including vegan ‘cheese’, and ‘dairy-free yoghurt’. Dairy manufacturer, ‘Flora’, welcomed this sweeping reform by claiming that their “censorship” was over. Conversely, the EU Parliament rejected a ban on plant-based products using names typically associated with meat products.

Last year, the EU Parliament dismissed a ban that would prohibit the use of the words ‘creamy’, ‘buttery’, or ‘vegan alternative to yoghurt’ on dairy products. Similarly, this regulation (AM171) would have outlawed the promotion of ‘vegan alternatives’ being less carbon-intensive, or better for the planet and the consumer. The European Dairy Association has stated that the decision to uphold existing restrictions on the use of terms such as ‘vegan cheese’ in the Common Agricultural Policy will continue to protect dairy industry products.

Why is there such tension over the labelling of these foods?

EU meat terminologies are outlined in EC Regulation 853/2004 in which it determines meat as being from animals, but not seafood or fish. Therefore, a lack of legislation in regards to the new ‘meat-free’ revolution exists – and can explain the rift between the EU’s farmers and its ever-expanding vegetarian and vegan population.

For both UK and EU, compositional food standards assert that a sausage is only deemed a ‘pork sausage’ if containing over 42% of pork, (as per EU Food Hygiene Law 853, Annex VII, Part B). In this regard, surely just the word ‘sausage’ can be used to describe vegetarian sausages too: they contain no meat, so there is no need to label them further than just being a humble sausage. If ‘sausage’ is prefixed with ‘vegan’ then how is this different to differentiating between sausages made with other meats? ‘Sausage’ seems an umbrella term, under which the surprising lack of UK and EU regulations has granted ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’, a place.

The opposition to including ‘meat-free’ phraseology does no benefit to its cause when it insults the public’s intelligence suggesting we don’t know what we are buying. Quorn has declared that “in 35 years, not one consumer has complained they bought one of our products by mistake thinking it contained meat”. However, the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has accused brands such as Quorn of “playing tricks” on the public and being deceptive regarding the health implications of their products. Nutritionally, the BMPA claims purchasing these products denies the consumer vitamins and minerals contained in meat: iron, zinc, B12, etc.

Yet, component parts of ‘meat-free’ products (quinoa, soya, chickpeas) contain high levels of protein, essential vitamins and minerals, whilst also being low in sugar, calories, and the cholesterol found in beef, bacon and ham – commonly linked to heart disease and cancer. If I saw ‘meat-free’ on some packaging, I would know what I was purchasing.

Supermarkets are increasingly designating whole aisles for ‘meat-free’ products, and manufacturers (fearful of overreaction from meat producers) are taking no risks with repeatedly emphasising the ‘meat-free’ nature of their products on their packaging. To suggest the public do not have the agency to determine the contents of a vegan sausage, is a patronising misstep that invites similarly ludicrous responses: do Bernard Matthews’ Turkey Dinosaurs contain real Pterodactyl? What part of the cow does a Beef Tomato come from?

Ultimately, meat producers need to adapt to a market that is rapidly growing. Allied Market Research estimates the ‘meat-free’ market to generate over £2.2bn annually by 2025. Governments should subsidise farmers who choose to grow legumes, soy, peas, and pulses. That isn’t to say they should stop farming meat, but this offers them the chance to join a prosperous, growing market that can reward them with increased revenue, and increased public support that they so rightly deserve.