Plant-Based Labeling Globally: Where Consumers and Companies Currently Stand
Plant-based food labeling is a hot topic worldwide, not least because there is no singular approach. With a myriad of different guidelines in place, informing the consumer and allowing manufacturers to aptly demonstrate what their products are comparable to has become confusing, and, increasingly, a legal matter.
Seemingly, the central issue is not the use of terms such as ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan,’ but, moreover, the adoption of monikers and adjectives more commonly attributed to the meat and dairy sectors. Specific examples of ire-inducing labeling include plant milk brands using terms such as ‘creamy’ and plant-based meat outfits calling their products ‘sausages,’ ‘burgers,’ and ‘steak.’
While there is no universal labeling rule in place, individual countries and regions have sought to impose varying degrees of censorship on the plant-based food sector. Though some have–arguably–been high profile in their approach, success has been limited as the global plant-based collective has actively fought back.
Plant-Based Labeling in The United States
Currently, the U.S. has no federal regulation of plant-based food labeling. In short, this means that domestic products and imported goods alike can be labeled as they wish, with no limitations on terms traditionally attributed to the meat and dairy industries, but this only applies at a federal level.
Confusingly, U.S. states can impose their own mandates. As such, regions that rely on the meat and dairy industries have been keen to ban plant-based manufacturers from using ‘meaty’ terminology to promote their goods. Texas provides a clear example of this in practice.
Holding the largest number of cattle in the entire US.., Texas is a meat and dairy-centric state. With this in mind, and as plant-based alternatives began to enjoy searing popularity, back in 2021 the House Bill 316 was given the green light by Texas lawmakers. The bill aimed to prevent meat-free manufacturers from using ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ on their packaging.
More recently, Texas’ Republican Governor–Greg Abbott–signed into law a bill that now legally requires all plant-based products to be clearly labeled as such, using pre-approved words. In addition, such signposting now needs to be as large as product names, to avoid “consumer confusion.”
Texas is not the only state to have taken apparent umbrage at the plant-based sector taking market share away from conventional meat and dairy companies. Arkansas, Missouri, Wyoming, and others have all attempted to censor meat-free manufacturers, though many face or have faced lawsuits from plant-based companies.
How Europe is Tackling Plant-Based Labeling
Unlike the U.S., Europe has a number of stringent regulations in place for plant-based food labeling. The European Union placed itself at the center of the issue by drawing up a list of terms that can be used to describe plant-based foods.
At present, companies are unable to label their products as ‘milk’ or yogurt,’ for example, even if they are qualified as being vegan or plant-based. However, manufacturers are able to market their foods as being an ‘alternative to yogurt.’ Similarly, descriptive terms have not been banned, allowing plant-based dairy firms to use words such as ‘creamy’ and ‘buttery.’
In 2020, the EU considered taking plant-based labeling censorship up a notch when plans to impose a blanket ban on terms such as ‘burger’ and ‘sausage’ being used by anyone other than conventional meat product producers were floated. This resulted in a coalition of plant-based companies–led by the Good Food Institute Europe (GFI Europe) and ProVeg International joining forces to oppose the move. A majority of just 48 votes eventually defeated the ban.
However, just as a ban on ‘meaty’ terminology was rejected, the EU voted in favor of similarly restrictive legislation, this time aimed squarely at the alternative dairy market. Had the legal changes gone through, plant-based companies would no longer have been able to package their products in cartons or use recognizable descriptors such as ‘creamy.’
Again, the GFI Europe team launched an awareness campaign to block the censorship. This time drawing the support of high-profile celebrities, including Greta Thunberg, which helped to overturn the proposal in 2021.
Despite such defeats, some EU member countries have sought to impose their own rules. France and Italy, in particular, have taken steps to implement meat-specific terminology bans, though the former was halted by a high court order in 2022.
As in the US, potential consumer confusion is frequently cited as a reason for attempts to censor plant-based manufacturers in the EU.
Sitting within Europe but outside of the EU regulations, the UK is in a unique situation. As one of the largest consumers and manufacturers of plant-based products in the world, it makes little sense to impose costly legislative changes to domestic and imported goods, but the current Conservative government appears to be considering exactly this.
Guidance is currently being drafted that would see tighter rules surrounding the use of dairy-centric words such as ‘cheese’ and ‘butter.’ They could be removed from the permitted plant-based lexicon altogether, even when accompanied by further descriptors such as ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based.’ Even more concerning is that words spelt to demonstrate their dairy-free but comparable status could also be at risk, meaning that companies which have sought to use terms such as ‘mylk’ could be facing expensive rebranding.
South Africa’s Censorship Swing and Miss
One of the most notorious attempts to block the progress of the plant-based sector came from South Africa, in 2022.
It was announced in June last year that South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development (DALRRD) had implemented an immediate ban on the use of ‘meaty’ words on plant-based products. As such, it was reportedly preparing to seize all plant-based products that did not align with the new ruling, with shelves expected to empty at the end of August.
Plans were halted when the Johannesburg High Court stepped in and granted a reprieve that allowed manufacturers to sell their products, unchanged, until at least May 8th 2023. At the time of going to press, no announcements have been made to suggest the bans or seizures will be revived in South Africa.
If the issue is raised again, it is likely that the South African Meat Processors Association will once again be a staunch supporter. In 2022, it publicly backed the proposed ban and seizures, claiming that the use of meat-centric terms is “misleading for consumers.”
How Confused Are Consumers?
Given the apparent prolific global concern surrounding consumer awareness, ProVeg International commissioned a survey in 2022 to identify the impact of plant-based and vegan food labeling.
In addition to revealing that a majority of buyers prefer the term ‘plant-based’ to more vegan-specific or ‘meat-free’ jargon, the research found that very few individuals consider themselves at risk of buying the wrong food.
Tellingly, 94% of those surveyed said that they are not confused by plant-based chicken items being labeled as ‘nuggets.’ Moreover, more than 80% stated that anything labeled as ‘vegan,’ ‘vegetarian,’ or ‘plant-based’ is obviously free from animal meat. Just over two-thirds (76%) revealed that labels actively help them to make informed purchases.
Speaking at the time about the findings, Stephanie Jaczniakowska-McGirr, director of corporate engagement at ProVeg, noted: “We hope these results will contribute towards creating a favorable regulatory and labeling landscape for plant-based products, particularly when we’re seeing uncertainty around such topics in Europe.”