Whereas labelling on methods of production remains difficult to develop, France has undertaken to restrict the use for designations traditionally associated with meat and dairy. Although presented as a measure to protect consumers and ensure fair competition among food businesses, this legislation illustrates confusion in policy priorities as EU and national laws still fail to properly inform consumers on methods of production.
French consumer law versus plant-based meat and dairy analogues
In May 2018, the French National Assembly (lower house of parliament) voted to prohibit the use of “terms associated with products of animal origins to market food containing a significant proportion of plant-based materials”. Presented as a consumer protection measure, the provision aims to “ban deceptive marketing practices that associate terms such as ‘steak,’ ‘filet,’ ‘bacon,’ ‘sausage’ to products that are not partly or wholly made up of meat”. The measure also applies to dairy products and bans the use of designations such as ‘milk’, ‘cream’ or ‘cheese’ to vegan or vegetarian products marketed as dairy alternatives.
This provision was an amendment to the more general “bill for a more balanced trade relations in agriculture” put forward by member of parliament and former cattle farmer Jean Baptiste Moreau (LREM, centrist).
Now adopted by the National Assembly it currently awaits approval in the Senate (upper house) in the autumn. Moreau asserts that the end goal of this amendment does not specifically address vegan or vegetarian alternatives, but rather intends to combat common deceptive practices in the meat industry, such as adding beet to ground beef. While Moreau supports the “less-and-better meat” approach and denies that he was approached by industry lobbies, the amendment is in line with their long-standing hostility to meat and dairy alternatives, which they see as a serious competitive threat.
A ripple effect of the 2017 EU Court decision
The proposed amendment also refers to a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling in 2017 (“Verband Sozialer v TofuTown.com GmBH”) in favor of a ban on the use of designations traditionally associated with dairy products for soy-based products. This leaves little doubt as to the amendment’s main objective: strengthening labelling requirements for meat and dairy substitutes.
In its ruling the ECJ strictly interpreted a 2013 EU regulation on the common organisation of markets, deciding that the regulation should be “interpreted as precluding the term ‘milk’ and the designations reserved […] exclusively from milk products from being used to designate a purely plant-based product in marketing or advertising, even if those terms are expanded upon clarifying or descriptive terms indicating the plant origin of the product at issue […].” Hence, under ECJ case law, the use of terms such as “tofu butter” and “veggie cheese” is unlawful because it misleads consumers and threatens competition among food producers.
There is no justification in terms of consumer protection for interpreting the 2013 regulation in such an unusually restrictive way. No studies have yet proven that using terms traditionally associated with meat and dairy products for plant-based products misleads consumers, or even creates confusion among buyers. Such an allegation makes even less sense in the case of plant-based beverages, the packaging of which always displays the origin of the product (e.g. “soy milk,” “cashew milk,” “coconut milk,” etc.). However, many other practices do clearly mislead and confuse EU consumers, primarily on the packaging of animal-based products. In absence of proper regulatory definitions, terms such as “natural” or “farm fresh” and packaging suggestive of an outdoor environment are widespread. They mislead the consumer into believing that these products originate from pasture farms, when the animals are actually raised in highly intensive production systems. This has led Compassion in World Farming to launch the “Honest Labelling” campaign this August, calling for clearer labelling of factory-farmed products.
In order to protect consumers and uphold fair competition, what we really need is method of production labelling at EU and national level, building on the EU marketing standards for table eggs.
Alice Di Concetto, Farm Animals – Programme Officer
+ 32 (0)2 207 7711 | firstname.lastname@example.org