Posted On September 15, 2023

France wants to ban the names of meat products in plant alternatives

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France wants to ban the names of meat products in plant alternatives

The semantic and commercial battle between the meat sector and that of plant-based alternatives has been reactivated in France. Just over a year after the Council of State suspended a first decree published by the Government, which prohibited the use of meat terms to designate products made with vegetables, the Executive presented a new version at the beginning of the month.

The Council – the highest administrative institution in the country – had considered that that first text was too vague, since it referred to the use of “specific terminology for butcher shops, delicatessens or fishmongers”, without establishing details.

The new decree is more exhaustive and contains a list of twenty-one terms, such as ‘steak’, ‘ham’ or ‘schnitzel’, which – according to the text – “may not be used to designate food products containing vegetable proteins.” A second list establishes another hundred words, among which are ‘bacon’, ‘blood sausage’ and ‘sausage’, which can only be used when the product contains a marginal amount of vegetable elements (from 0.5% to 5%, in depending on the category).

Although in France the market for vegetable proteins remains a minority, in recent years more and more products made from non-animal ingredients (lentils, chickpeas, mushrooms, etc.) have appeared, which reproduce the texture and appearance of the meat. A market that aims to attract not only vegetarians and vegans, but also consumers looking for an alternative to reduce their consumption of meat products.

An influential sector

However, for representatives of the agri-food sector, it is a deception that these plant products receive names that come from the world of butchery. They assure that they can mislead consumers and have asked for protection measures similar to those taken in 2013 in the dairy industry, which achieved a ban on using the terms ‘milk’, ‘yogurt’ or ‘cheese’ for dairy merchandise. non-animal origin (measures that the European Parliament has rejected transferring to the meat sector).

In this context, the meat subsidiary, which with some 100,000 employees is the most powerful in the French food sector, has applauded the government text as “an essential measure in favor of the transparency of information to the consumer and the preservation of our products and our know-how”, as stated by Interbev (professional association of livestock and meat).

The rest of the unions in the sector, led by the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions, have also described the initiative as “essential”, although they consider it “insufficient” because it only applies to products produced in France, not to imported ones. On the opposite side, the National Observatory of Plant Foods has criticized a decree that “is part of a logic of broad protection of the economic interests of the meat industry.”

Several food experts point out that this new government text may put a brake on the necessary change in the eating habits of the French. “Names related to meat are important, they create a feeling of familiarity, people who consume vegetarian products enjoy meat but no longer want to eat animals, for different reasons,” explained University of Manchester researcher Malte Rödl in an article published in The Conversation.

Although some of these food experts show their reservations about the excessive levels of transformation of a large part of the vegetable substitutes that are marketed today, they also point out that the decision is a reflection of little political will to develop less processed alternatives, such as lentils or tofu, which could replace part of the unsustainable livestock farming. And they warn that in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, where the meat industry is driving this market, this battle does not take place.

Cultural resistance

“This decree that prohibits the use of names such as ‘vegetable steak’ creates a distortion of competition between European companies and aims to slow down as much as possible the transition towards a plant-based diet,” reacted on X (former Twitter) Romain Espinosa, researcher specialized in economics, animal welfare and food at the Center national de la recherche scientifique. “It’s bad for the market and bad for the planet,” he said.

In reality, in France the meat alternatives sector faces two major currents of resistance: one on the economic level and the other on the cultural level. As with the automobile, meat is at the center of a debate about the necessary changes in citizens’ lifestyles to confront the climate crisis.

An especially tense debate in a country where gastronomy occupies a prominent place in society and culture. “Like wine, steak is, in France, a basic food, nationalized rather than socialized; “figures in all the scenarios of food life,” wrote the philosopher Roland Barthes in the chapter that he dedicated to him in Mythologies.

The problem is that to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, France must consume less meat, a reduction that will range between 20% and 70% compared to the current level, depending on the different scenarios. This year, the Court of Auditors already recommended a reduction in the number of cattle as a necessary measure to meet national climate commitments, estimating that in this country livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of all emissions related to human activities.

But, despite these demands from national and international institutions, a large part of politicians avoid referring to this excessive meat consumption (twice the world average). In each debate, the right and the extreme right show unconditional support for both production and consumption; while the most active voices calling for reduction are found mainly on the left, in particular the deputy Aymeric Caron (who belongs to the parliamentary group of France Insoumise) and the environmentalist deputy Sandrine Rousseau.

Brussels has the last word

In this political context, in May 2020 the French National Assembly approved by majority a law on the transparency of information related to agricultural and food products, which already contemplated the elimination of the “animal” vocabulary for foods made with plant proteins. A few months later, the European Parliament voted against a similar measure at the community level, making France a European exception in this regard.

Shortly after the approval of the law in the French Parliament, Interbev, together with Inaporc and Anvol (specialized in poultry) denounced the company Les Nouveaux Fermiers – which was renamed Happy Vore in 2021 – for the use of the words ‘fermiers’ (farmers) and ‘viande’ (meat) in their name. The same thing happened a few months later with Beyond Meat, the American plant-based meat giant whose logo (a bull with a cape on a green background) was considered “misleading” to consumers.

But, after the publication of the first decree that articulated the law, the Protéines France association, which brings together manufacturers in the sector, also mobilized and appealed to the Council of State, which suspended the decree and referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Without waiting for a decision, the French Government has now gone ahead with this new version of the text. Although, in any case, Brussels will still have the last word because it must rule on its compliance with the European regulation on labeling.

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