ProVeg fighting “plant-based censorship” as UK government considers restrictions for non-dairy terminology
13 Jan 2023 --- Concerns are growing over the possibility UK government officials could tighten up labeling rules for dairy-free plant-based alternatives, effectively banning dairy-like terms such as “milk” and “butter.” At the same time, plant-based advocates believe the US Food and Drink Administration (FDA) is also pondering plant-based wording restrictions.
The controversy surrounding what names should be allowed for plant-based products is again heating up amid claims from ProVeg International that the UK government is considering a ban on dairy descriptor names.
ProVeg International – a food awareness organization working to transform the global food system – brands this “outrageous and unnecessary censorship,” while UK government officials claim it would help clear up consumer confusion about what’s on the label, helping people better understand what is in their food and beverage products.
Draft opinion in progress
However, the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says in a statement sent to FoodIngredientsFirst that local authority Trading Standards officers are currently leading on the development of “a draft opinion on enforcement of current label rules which already exist.”
Defra does not explicitly mention a ban at this stage or go into detail about what’s in the draft opinion.
“There are clear rules in place so shoppers are not misled by labels and can buy with confidence. These include long-standing rules reserving use of specific dairy terms, including ‘milk’ and ‘butter,’ exclusively for milk and milk products,” the statement reads.
“As a normal part of this process, a range of stakeholder views, including from plant-based food manufacturers, are being carefully considered.”
But, ProVeg insists it has not been consulted, and neither have other key players in the plant-based industry.
“We are in the process of writing a letter to Defra pointing out how damaging this guidance will be and how undemocratic the process has been in drafting it,” Jasmijn de Boo, vice president of ProVeg International, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“The guidance document was drawn up by a group called the Food Standards, and Information Focus Group and the plant-based sector was not consulted. Importantly, this can result in a major new approach without it having gone through parliament, which is undemocratic. We hope that in doing so, we can further engage with Defra on this guidance in a way we have not had an opportunity to do until now,” she continues.
What could it mean for industry?
De Boo explains how, if any ban or restriction on terminology came in, it would be very challenging and costly for plant-based manufacturers and brands.
“It would mean that brands that have to fight any enforcement action through legal means will incur huge expenses through a tribunal. For smaller brands, this process could potentially cause them to fold. If brands do not win a legal challenge, then they would have to re-label and incur even more costs. All this would be totally unnecessary as consumers are not confused by the existing labels,” she explains.
Forcing companies to use made-up names that are alien to consumers who are looking for a functional replacement of dairy in their coffee, breakfast and pancake recipe is really unhelpful toward the growing number of flexitarians who are increasingly seeking out plant-based products.
“Moreover, given the climate crisis, we don’t understand why plant-based options that support the climate should be made harder to access,” adds de Boo.
“Victory for common sense”
The EU’s previously proposed “plant-based dairy censorship” was defeated in 2021.
The European Parliament, the European Council, and the European Commission rejected Amendment 171, which would have meant severe restrictions for plant-based dairy products.
ProVeg International challenged the amendment as an attack on environmental sustainability. It gathered support from nearly half a million consumers who signed its petition and worked extensively behind the scenes, monitoring the situation, speaking to key actors, and gathering support from organizations and companies across the plant-based sector.
Last year, in South Africa and France, attempts at censorship were temporarily thwarted through legal means.
Also, last year, Turkey banned the production of plant-based cheese, notes de Boo.
Restrictions in the US?
She also claims there is a similar movement in the US.
“The US FDA is currently sitting on guidance which we believe will effectively ban the term “milk” when it is published, possibly in the next few weeks,” she reveals.
“This is happening because the international meat and dairy industry is failing to see the transition to plant-based food as the huge opportunity it really is, and as a necessity to address climate change.”
“Some companies are embracing both animal and plant-based products, which is good, but the rest of the industry needs to recognize the value of the shift to a plant-based diet for their businesses and also for the climate. We are truly concerned about this global trend and hope there will not be further attempts at censorship.”
Defra also claims that its policy does not conflict with its support for food innovation, including in the rapidly developing plant-based food sector.
The draft is currently in progress, and a range of views on potential interpretations have been considered, it flags.
By Gaynor Selby
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