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Reuters / Yves Herman
Defining moment.
FOOD FIGHT

Europe may ban vegan food companies from using the terms “burger” and “milk”

By Chase Purdy

The European Parliament is getting into the dictionary business.

Well, sort of.

On April 1, the legislative body’s agriculture committee passed a measure that would prohibit the makers of vegetarian meat and dairy food alternatives from using marketing terms such as “burger,” “steak,” and “milk.” It effectively draws a line of demarcation for and defines those terms, which have traditionally been affiliated with animal food products.

It’s a win for farmers and established meat producers, who hope that the full parliament and European commission will approve the measure after election season in May. It’s a blow to the companies making plant-based burgers and steaks, who’ve decried such measures as protectionist. It also presents a new challenge for vegan and vegetarian upstarts looking to capture swaths of the meat market: If they want to compete, they’re going to have to be more creative.

The dispute over the legality of using certain marketing terms isn’t just playing out in Europe. It’s unfolding across the globe, and a likely outcome is that it will wind up creating a massive headache for new food companies hoping to make a mark in the meat and dairy alternatives business. While courts in Europe have generally affirmed arguments made by animal agriculture, the American judicial system has ruled the opposite.

In Europe, the German food company TofuTown lost a court case in June 2017 over whether it could market some of its products as “tofu butter” and “veggie cheese.” Meanwhile in the US, just one month earlier, a federal judge in the central district of California dismissed a case against Blue Diamond Growers, which makes almond milk, saying that claims of consumers being confused by the marketing terms were “patently implausible.”

Politicians in US statehouses have come to their own conclusions. In Arkansas, Missouri, and a handful of other states, laws have already been passed barring cauliflower rice makers from using the term “rice,” and plant-based milk makers from using the word “milk.”

These discordant findings ultimately may create a patchwork of regulations around these food products. If new vegan-minded companies want to do business around the world, they may have to devise multiple product-marketing schemes and packaging designs to comply with individual national laws. That’s a hassle, and it’s expensive.

Stuck in the middle are consumers. Polls suggest the vast majority are not actually confused when plant-based companies co-opt traditional meat and dairy terms. In October 2018, a Lincoln Park Strategies online poll of 1,000 US adults found 75% of people were not confused about whether almond milk contained cow milk. That poll was inspired, at least in part, by conversations within the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about how the term “milk” should be enforced. After all, as then-FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb said in July 2018, “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”

The question facing vegan and vegetarian upstarts is if they can’t, in some places, use words like “burger,” “milk,” “rice,” or “steak” to describe their products, what terms should they use?

Some of the initial ideas don’t seem particularly inspiring. Who’s hungry for a “veggie disc” or “seitan slab?”