Should words like “sausage” and “burger” only be used to describe foods that contain meat?
Under an EU proposal put forward in April, the answer is yes – although experts are due to raise their objections to the plan at a House of Lords hearing in London on Wednesday.
Vegetarian and vegan campaigners say that if the proposal become law in September, then food producers would have to adopt unappealing alternative product names, such as “vegetable tubes” or “veggie discs”.
They say this would put off consumers at a time when we are being encouraged to eat less meat to protect our health and the environment.
Steaks are high
It would also have an unfair impact on vegans, says Mark Banahan, campaigns and policy officer at the Vegan Society. “It would [have an] impact [on] their ability to choose food in line with their beliefs easily”.
But according to David Lindars, technical operations director at the British Meat Processors Association (BPMA), the plan would bring much needed clarity.
“Terms like sausage, steak, burger and escalope are synonymous with meat and that should be made clear on labelling.
“If you are a sausage producer then you are going to like this plan,” he says.
The proposal – known as amendment 41 – was submitted by the European Parliament’s agriculture committee as part of wider draft legislation to update the Common Agricultural Policy.
The MEPs who back it say it is “common sense” and will prevent confusion. They also say it would extend protections already available to dairy, after the European Court of Justice banned the sale of soya milk as “soya milk” in 2017, meaning it must now be labelled as “soya drink”.
Mr Lindars admits he has seen no evidence that consumers get confused by terms like veggie burger and accepts such phrases have become common parlance.
But he says people need to know what is in their food and the EU plan would make things “crystal clear”.
“I think the clearer the labelling is the better, especially if you have allergens. Usually you have to turn the product over to see what the ingredients are – but if it’s on the front it is more helpful.”
The UK’s National Farmers Union, which will also be giving evidence on Wednesday, also supports the plan in principle, albeit with caveats.
“We would want to protect traditional meat-based terms – so we would object to terms like meat-free mince,” says a spokesman.
“But we don’t think words like burgers and sausages fall into that category.”
But Mr Banahan says banning terms such as veggie burger and vegetarian sausages will actually “create confusion”, while holding the plant-based food industry back.
He says terms like burger and sausage convey more than what is in the product – they also convey the shape, taste, how you should cook them, and what they should be served with – for instance chips with burgers, or a bun.
Lynne Elliot, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, agrees, adding that if the new plan becomes law food producers will face huge costs to change their branding, marketing and packaging.
“McDonalds has had a veggie burger for a long time. Greggs has introduced their vegan sausage roll, and KFC launched their vegan burger this week. They are happy to use these terms because it means something to their customers.”
Will the law pass?
According to a survey by Waitrose last year, one in eight Britons are now vegetarian or vegan, while a further 21% claim to be flexitarian, meaning they only occasionally eat meat.
And the EU forecasts per capita meat consumption will fall from 69.3kg per year now to 68.6kg over the next 12 years.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some MEPs and charities have suggested that amendment 41 is being used to protect the meat industry.
But Mr Lindars doesn’t think the plan – if it goes ahead – will benefit producers. “People seeking plant-based products will know the difference, it is not going to affect sales.”
According to reports, there is a good chance the European Parliament will approve amendment 41 when it votes in September – although it is possible the legislation won’t make it that far, Mr Banahan says.
The Parliament has just held elections, he says, so its agriculture committee will be reconvened and it is unclear whether the new grouping will uphold the proposal given all the criticism.
Britain would also be free to ignore the law after it leaves the EU – although Mr Banahan says the regulations would still affect UK products sold into the EU.
“A lot of manufacturers might have to adopt new language anyway… As with everything related to Brexit, it is complicated,” he says.