Climate Conscious
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EU Backs Down From Censoring Vegan Foods

The European Parliament tried to censor vegan food products by approving Amendment 171.

Photo from Oatly’s Media Image Library. Notice that the label in the package reads ‘Oat Drink’.

Plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are becoming more and more popular in Europe over time. This is largely due to a growing concern over healthy eating habits and the increased awareness regarding animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal farming. Although plant-based foods' current sales represent a small share of the meat and dairy markets, they have grown by almost 10% per year between 2010 and 2020. Given the rising interest in alternatives to animal-derived products, it came as a surprise to plant-based food companies when the European Parliament tried to censor their dairy-alternative products.

The food market is extensively regulated within the European Union (EU) through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This policy has been regularly updated since its conception in 1962, but last year’s reform raised some eyebrows among plant-based food companies and environmental groups. More specifically, the amendments to the CMO Regulation — which establishes a common organization of agricultural product markets. Ever since the adoption of this regulation in 2013, plant-based alternatives are not allowed to use terms like milk, cheese, or yogurt to designate their products within the EU. These words are restricted to animal-derived goods only, which means that descriptions like almond milk are prohibited. These are often replaced by almond drink or beverage. However, plant-based alternatives are still allowed to be described, for example, as milk substitute or dairy-free. This seemed about to change on October 23rd of last year, when the European Parliament approved Amendment 171.

Amendment 171 sought to impose new restrictions on plant-based products by prohibiting any direct or indirect commercial use of the dairy product designations mentioned before. It also forbade any “imitation or evocation” of these products by vegan alternatives. The amendment, in practice, restricted the use of adjectives such as creamy and buttery, limited the provision of important allergen information such as lactose-free, and prevented any comparison between conventional dairy and its alternatives. For example, it would stop vegan products from comparing their lower carbon footprints to those of conventional dairy. Furthermore, because the amendment was phrased in such a vague manner, it could also be interpreted as forbidding the use of images of plant-based white beverages or of certain packaging like cartons — given that it would evoke the imagery of milk. Ultimately, this would force plant-based food companies to drastically change the marketing of their products and make communication with consumers more difficult.

All these points and more were addressed in an open letter to the Portuguese Presidency of the EU Council signed by twenty-one Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Among these NGOs were the Good Food Institute (GFI), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and ProVeg International. The latter also led a public petition against the amendment, along with the companies Upfield and Oatly, which gathered support from ninety-six other organizations and more than 400,000 signatures. After all, the fight was not yet lost. Amendment 171 still needed to be officially approved in 2021 at the Trilogue negotiations between the EU Parliament, Commission, and Council.

“Are you stupid? The milk lobby thinks you are.”

Call to action by Oatly, asking consumers to sign the petition against AM171.

The amendment’s early approval was surprisingly contradictory since a similar proposal, which aimed to censor plant-based meat substitutes, had been rejected the same day. In this case, the restrictions targeted terms such as burger and sausage. According to its advocates, both amendments supposedly aimed at preventing consumers from being confused or mislead by plant-based substitutes. The companies behind these products disagreed though. Oatly’s Where’s the milk?” mock campaign was one of the highlights of the fight against Amendment 171 — in an ad-like video they showed how easily focus groups could distinguish between milk and their oat-based beverage. Another strong argument opposing the amendment was that it went against EU’s pro-environmental stance expressed in the Farm to Fork Strategy of the European Green Deal.

European Parliament SPAAK Building in Brussels. Photo from the Multimedia Centre of the European Parliament.

The reason behind the double standard approach regarding meat and dairy substitutes remains unknown. However, ties between Members of Parliament (MEPs) and the agriculture industry could (hypothetically) explain their support for Amendment 171. Among the forty-eight MEPs belonging to the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development who voted on the amendment, 56% have some connection to the agriculture industry — as reported by The Lens Press. Strong links with the industry comprise the majority of these connections and include, for example, currently being a farmer and having received payments benefits from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), mentioned earlier.

The backlash against Amendment 171 — often referred to as the Vegan Ban — led the European Parliament to reconsider their stance and, on May 25th of 2021, the amendment was withdrawn from the Trilogue negotiations. The decision represents a victory for the plant-based food industry and the vegan movement, but it also shows that the sector cannot let its guard down against the powerful established enterprises. Ultimately, in a battle between lobbies, plant-based food companies — backed by environmental, consumer, and animal welfare organizations — won against the dairy industry.

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Gil Pires

Gil Pires

Junior Consultant | MSc in Biotechnology

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