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France Becomes Latest Government to Regulate ‘Meat’ Labels for Plant-Based Food

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What do you call a chunk of beef-like protein that “bleeds” beet-juice?

Not a steak, says the French government, which just issued a decree on Tuesday restricting how plant-based products can be marketed to consumers.

In recent years, plant-based mock meats—from burger patties to sausages and “chicken” nuggets—have become a mainstay on supermarket shelves, with the industry having grown to a global market size of more than $4 billion, as consumers increasingly seek to shift their diets to healthier and climate-friendlier options.

Read More: What Happens When Diners Are Shown Climate Warning Labels on Meat Dishes

But after years of wrangling by French meat producers, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and the health and finance ministries have banned (effective in three months' time) the use of 21 terms—including “steak,” “fillet,” and “ham”—to describe meat-free products on their packaging.

Violators of the new labeling law face fines of up to €1,500 ($1,620) for individuals and €7,500 ($8,120) for companies—though producers will have a year to clear their existing inventory containing meat labels.

The move, pushed for years by the meat industry and formally proposed in September, comes as French farmers, who wield significant political influence, have been protesting for months against environmental regulations among other political grievances.

Read More: What to Know About the Farmer Protests in Europe

While the meat industry argues that marketing mock meats as meat may mislead consumers, critics say that their lobbying for label restrictions is merely an attempt to disadvantage plant-based competitors.

But the war of words is far from over: French producers of plant-based products have opposed the new label restrictions, ostensibly meant to help clear up confusion for consumers, saying that consumers can tell the difference between products labeled as “steak” versus “veggie steak,” a viewpoint the French supreme court affirmed in a December ruling. Opponents also say that the new rules, which apply only to products manufactured in France and not to imports, will only boost foreign competition in the space.

The debate over the labeling of plant-based meats was escalated to the European Court of Justice last year, but the French government has proceeded with its new regulations before the European body has given any ruling.

Read More: Impossible Foods’ CEO Has Beef With How the Media Portrays Plant-Based Meat

But it’s not just France—and it’s not just meat. Currently, across the European Union, words such as “milk,” “butter,” or “yogurt” are not allowed to be used to label plant-based dairy alternatives—even if they’re qualified with terms like “plant-based” or “vegan.”

In 2020, the E.U. rejected a proposal to ban plant-based products from using descriptors commonly associated with meat, such as “burger” and “sausage.” Policy experts who opposed the ban argued that it would deter consumers from trying out plant-based products, which would have a negative impact on the E.U.’s climate goals.

Here’s what plant-based product-labeling regulations look like in other parts of the world:

United States

There is currently no federal ban on the labeling of plant-based products with meaty descriptors. But several states have issued their own rules.

In 2018, Missouri became the first state in the U.S. to ban use of the word “meat” on products that are not actually derived from livestock or poultry. Violators are subject to a fine up to $1,000 or one year in prison. The move was lauded by farmer rights groups, saying that it reduces confusion among consumers, but was met with a lawsuit from plant-based advocates protesting the decision.

Since then, other states have followed with restrictions on using common meat and dairy terms in the labeling of plant-based products, including Oklahoma and Kansas.

Such bans have been the target of heated debate, and sometimes been repealed. In 2019, an Arkansas ban on using meat-related words for plant-based product labels was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. But a ban in Louisiana that was similarly ruled unconstitutional by a lower court was reinstated by an appellate court last April.

Last June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that mandates labels for alternative meat products to include descriptors like “meatless,” “plant-based,” or “analogue”—making the state, which is the biggest beef producer in the U.S., the latest to impose naming restrictions on plant-based products.

The U.S. meat industry has for years been accused of unfairly targeting their plant-based counterparts, including running a 2020 Super Bowl commercial that insinuated health concerns about vegan meat.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration declared that oat, soy, and almond beverages can retain the word “milk” in their packaging, ending a decadeslong debate between milk producers and makers of dairy-free alternatives.

United Kingdom

The U.K., which already bans plant-based products from describing themselves as “milk,” is considering introducing additional restrictions on labeling for more plant-based products—including bans on words that sound like dairy items such as “m*lk,” “cheeze,” and “not milk.”

In May last year, an investigative report by Greenpeace journalism team Unearthed found that the U.K. dairy industry has spent years lobbying for stricter enforcement of plant-based labeling laws.

In a recent win for the plant-based industry, however, a U.K. court ruled in December that Oatly, the popular oat beverage, will be allowed to continue using the word “milk” in its slogan “Post Milk Generation.”

Australia and New Zealand

Australia and New Zealand, which are governed by the same food regulatory framework, have also been caught in the fierce tussle between the meat industry and plant-based proponents over what to call plant-based products.

In 2021, the Australian Parliament held public consultations on the labeling of plant-based products. The following year, in the wake of complaints from farmers about the use of animal imagery and associations in plant-based product packaging, a Senate inquiry concluded with recommendations to tighten plant-based product labeling laws.

However, the recommendation was lambasted by plant-based meat advocates, many citing a study conducted by the University of Technology Sydney on local consumers that found that they were not confused over the labeling of plant-based products using descriptors associated with their meat-based counterparts.

For now, there are only voluntary guidelines on how to label meat and dairy alternative products, including suggested descriptors like “plant-based” or “dairy-free,” as well as a recommendation that depictions of animals should take up no more than 15% of the available space on the front of the packet.

Italy

In November, Italy’s lower house passed a bill to ban meat-related labeling for plant-based products, but the move sparked outcry, with critics arguing that it would instead introduce the very confusion among consumers it’s meant to prevent. The bill, which also included a proposed ban on lab-grown meat, has since been postponed.

Read More: We Tasted The World’s First Cultivated Steak, No Cows Required

“Everyday language like ‘steak’ and ‘salami’ help people know what to expect in terms of the taste, texture, preparation and appearance of plant-based meat products,” Francesca Gallelli, a consultant at non-profit Good Food Institute Europe told news outlet Food Navigator.

China

While there are no mandatory regulations surrounding the labeling of plant-based products in China, in 2021, the non-government industry group Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology published the country’s first voluntary standard for plant-based meat products, which stipulates that product labels should contain words “stating that this product is distinguished from animal meat products,” such as “plant-made” or “vegetarian.”

Japan

In an attempt to standardize and support the growth of the plant-based industry, in 2021, the Japanese government introduced regulations for the labeling of plant-based products, which allow plant-based companies to use terms such as “meat,” “milk,” and “eggs” to describe their products, as long as they are accompanied by disclaimers to signal to consumers that these are different from regular dairy or meat products.

India

In 2021, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India announced a ban on the use of words like “milk” and “cheese” for plant-based products, which was later stayed by the Delhi High Court. Today, the plant-based dairy industry in the country remains steeped in uncertainty over product labels.

Singapore

According to the Singapore Food Agency, companies selling plant-based products are allowed to label them as meat, but will have to qualify the products with terms like “mock,” “cultured,” or “plant-based,” so that consumers can make “informed decisions” when purchasing.

Canada

According to requirements outlined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, while plant-based products can be described as “meat alternative” or “plant-based meat,” their labeling must also include the word “simulated” as well as the phrases “contains no meat” or “contains no poultry.”

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