Who’s afraid of meat substitutes?

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77 billion land animals are raised every year for food. Plant-based substitutes have a huge role to play. [Shutterstock]

The industrial meat and dairy industry’s competitive fears lie behind calls to restrict the naming and marketing of plant-based meat substitutes. In the interests of climate, sustainability, consumer choice and profit, Joanna Swabe argues that big food businesses should try joining the green entrepreneurs.

Dr Joanna Swabe is executive director at Humane Society International/Europe.

In a recent written question to the European Commission, two Italian MEPs, Paolo De Castro (S&D) and Giovanni La Via (EPP), called for plant-based food companies to be restricted in the naming and marketing of their products.

The MEPs claim that product names such as vegan bresaola, vegetarian prosciutto and vegan mortadella violate EU labelling laws because these products traditionally contain meat.

Do they fear that consumers are going to continue shifting even more of their purchasing to plant-based foods? For the sake of our health, the welfare of animals and our environment, that would certainly be a good thing.

The science clearly shows that producing and consuming massive quantities of animal products (globally we raise more than 77 billion land animals for food each year) damages the environment and our health, while subjecting a significant proportion of these farm animals to cruel, crowded confinement on factory farms. For those reasons, experts agree that we should be choosing more plant-based foods.

Fortunately, entrepreneurial food companies are developing plant-based products that consumers in Europe and around the globe find to be great alternatives to their meat, egg and dairy counterparts. These products are often healthier and more sustainable, and companies are working to make them available at the same or lower cost to animal-based equivalents.

Many of these companies have garnered investment from the likes of Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, and the founders of tech companies like Yahoo and Google.

According to Allied Market Research, Europe is the world’s largest market for meat substitutes. Globally, the market is projected to grow 8.4% annually by 2020.

In October, Tyson Foods, the second largest meat producer in the world, purchased a 5% stake in the plant-based food company Beyond Meat. The world’s largest cereal company, General Mills, has also invested in Beyond Meat as well as in Kite Hill, which uses plant proteins to replace the milk in cheese and other dairy products.

By 2054, according to Lux Research, alternative protein sources could claim up to one-third of the protein industry globally.

So why is there backlash from politicians and the animal agriculture industry? What is the harm in labelling these products with recognisable descriptions?

Some analysts have suggested that such concerns are actually triggered by the meat, egg and dairy industry’s fear of competition from plant-based startups.

For example, a case over the naming of egg-free mayonnaise caused a stir in the United States last year when the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to the plant-based food company Hampton Creek, stating that its vegan spread Just Mayo was misbranded, as the legal definition of “mayonnaise” involves eggs.

Hampton Creek was ultimately allowed to keep using the name Just Mayo after making some changes to its label.

The EU currently lacks legislation concerning the naming of plant-based meat products. Imposing restrictions on their naming now would harm the ability of plant-based food companies to market their products as viable choices in comparison to meat and to capture more of the market share for protein. Limiting the growth of green companies contradicts the EU’s established sustainability goals.

It would also create an unnecessary impediment to the more progressive big food industry players who have already recognised that there is a growing market for meat substitutes, which they can profitably tap into.

The enlightened attitude of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is now seeing forward-thinking companies developing vegetarian variants on traditional meat products. Unilever is a case in point with its leading brand Unox recently joining forces with The Vegetarian Butcher to market vegetarian meatballs on Dutch supermarket shelves alongside its usual animal-based processed meat products.

From a policy perspective, the EU is a party to the Paris Agreement, the international climate accord to mitigate global warming, and has proclaimed its intent to play a leading role in mitigating climate change.

Farm animal production already accounts for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, and if serious attempts are not made to reduce the number of animals raised for food, this sector will emit more than two-thirds of the GHG emissions considered sustainable by 2050.

The EU should therefore be encouraging the development of innovate plant-based food companies, rather than hindering their growth with unnecessary regulations.

It is concerning that such restrictions on plant-based products are being requested by MEPs, particularly by the current chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and the former chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

Now is the time we should instead be doing more in the interests of climate, sustainability and consumer choice to support, not impede, farmers and food companies producing sustainable plant-based foods.

Reducing the total number of animals raised for food allows for a greater emphasis on sustainable agriculture and increased support for farmers who treat the animals they keep with compassion.

Rural economies can prosper with consumer spending distributed more to individuals who show a greater respect for animals and their welfare requirements. The result will be more farmers on the land and a decrease in industrial scale farms.