A vote is taking place in the European Parliament this week (week commencing 19 Oct) on the regulation establishing a Common Organisation of the Markets (CMOs) in agricultural products (2018/0218 COD) that would impact on food labelling for vegetarian and vegan food products.
Proposals have been put forward by the EU parliament’s agriculture committee in the AGRI Committee’s CMO Report. The Report sets out two proposals concerning the names used to describe plant based alternatives to animal meat and dairy. These proposals are:
- A ban on commonly used terms, such as ‘veggie burger,’ or ‘veggie sausage’. This could result in these products being renamed as ‘discs’ or ‘tubes’.
- Further restrictions on the naming of dairy alternatives by prohibiting terms to describe plant-based dairy alternatives.
There is already a ban on plant-based dairy alternatives after the European Court of Justice in 2017 banned the use of terms such as “milk”, “butter”, and “yoghurt” for marketing non-animal products. The second proposal would extend this to ban terms, such as ‘yoghurt-style’, ‘alternative to cheese,’ or ‘butter substitute’.
The proposals are being put forward on the basis that the livestock and meat industries claim that the use of meat related terms and names confuses consumers.
However, opponents to the proposals argue that a change in the labelling of vegetarian and vegan products would also cause confusion amongst consumers. The European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, conducted a survey of consumer attitudes last year and found that “most consumers do not appear to be concerned about the name of veggie ‘burgers’ or ‘sausages’ as long as the products are clearly identifiable as vegetarian / vegan”.
The survey highlights the importance of producers of vegetarian and vegan products ensuring that their products are labelled correctly.
EU member states already have the power to issue their own food labelling laws in a bid to prevent consumers from being misled. Recent examples suggest that member states have differing approaches in this area of food labelling. For example, following the decision from the European Court of Justice referred to above, France passed legislation which banned the use of meat terms for vegetarian and vegan substitutes. However, the Dutch government announced that plant based meat producers can use terms such as “chicken” as long as the product clearly marks that it was a vegan or vegetarian product.
Food labelling in the UK
The Food Information Regulations 2014 enforce EU Regulation 1169/2011, Food information to consumers (“FIC”). Article 7 of the FIC regulations states that food information shall not be misleading and that food information shall be accurate, clear and easy to understand for the consumer. This also applies to advertising and the presentation of foods.
Food labelling in the UK is regulated to protect consumers and to ensure that they have the correct information so that they are able to make informed choices based on their allergies, diet or personal taste.
In the UK, there is no legal requirement or basis under which food is to be labelled as vegetarian or vegan. There is also no clear guidance as to when food producers can or should label their products indicating that they are suitable for vegan which creates an inconsistent approach.
There is legislation in the UK which protects consumers against dishonest labelling and misleading descriptions. It is an offence to under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 to engage in a commercial practice which misleads consumers. This includes providing false information relating to the nature of the product and the main characteristics.
Breaching the regulations means that food producers open themselves up to investigation and prosecution by their local authority. This could potentially result in an unlimited fine or even imprisonment.
Other consequences include food producers being investigated by the Advertising Standards Agency in relation to any promotional material used to promote the product. A product recall or the redesign of marketing materials and packaging could also be extremely costly both financially and to the food producer’s brand.
The above shows how important it is that food producers get their food labelling right before any new product is launched or labelling is redesigned. Getting specialist advice before going to market is a wise move.
Whilst there is no legal requirement, the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society both offer certification schemes which allows food producers or other traders to put their trademarks on their product labelling. This is a clear way of demonstrating that your products are vegetarian or vegan.
When using these trademarks, food producers should ensure that they have followed the certification process and are authorised to use the trademark. Using the trademark without permission, could constitute as trademark infringement leading to other costly enforcement action being taken.
 BEUC, One bite at a time: consumers and the transition to sustainable food, An analysis of a survey of European consumers on attitudes towards sustainable food, June 2020
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