E.U. Debates Whether a Veggie Burger Is Really a Burger

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LONDON — When is a burger not a burger? When it contains no meat, according to a divisive proposed amendment on which the European Parliament is scheduled to vote on Friday, part of a set of measures that would ban products without meat or dairy from using associated terms in their labeling.

Under the proposal, plant-based alternative products could not be labeled with terms like “steak,” “sausage,” “escallop” or “burger.” Another proposal would expand a ban on descriptions such as “yogurt-style” or “cream imitation” for nondairy replacements.

The proposed amendment is a small part of a larger package of agricultural measures — one that has received more attention than perhaps desired either by its proponents among meat and livestock groups, who say they would prefer to focus on helping farmers work sustainably, or the environmentalists and food manufacturers opposing it, for whom it is a distraction from climate-change policy.

Jasmijn de Boo, vice president of ProVeg International, a group aimed at reducing meat consumption, said the proposal was not in the interest of consumers or manufacturers, noting that shoppers were not confused by the labels currently on store shelves.

“Why change something to a ‘veggie disc’ or ‘tube’ instead of a sausage?” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Those in favor of the change say that labeling plant-based products with meat terms misleads consumers and could open the door for other confusing labels.

“We simply call for the work of millions of European farmers and livestock sector workers to be acknowledged and respected,” said Jean-Pierre Fleury, chairman of Copa-Cogeca, Europe’s largest farming lobby group, in a statement earlier this month. He described the use of meatlike names for plant-based products as “cultural hijacking.”

It is not the first debate over plant-based foods, as the sector has exploded in recent years.

Labels for plant-based dairy alternatives like “soy milk” or “tofu butter” are already illegal in the bloc after dairy producers won a 2017 ruling backed by the European Court of Justice.

In 2018, France banned the use of meat terms to describe vegetarian products. In dozens of states in the United States, advocates of vegetarian food have clashed with farmers and lobbyists over legislation that makes it illegal for plant-based products to be called meat.

The Parliament’s vote will likely be close, and even if the proposal passes, member states will need to negotiate legislation before it comes into effect.

To make things more complicated, several parties in the Parliament have submitted proposals with different caveats since the initial amendment was introduced, which also need to be voted on. Manufacturers like Beyond Meat, Unilever and Ikea, along with the European Medical Association, have opposed the changes, saying that terms like “veggie burger” or “dairy alternative” help consumers understand the taste and texture of a product. They called the proposed changes “disproportionate and out of step with the current climate,” in an open letter.

Many said that approving the amendment would work against a goal established by the European Parliament this month to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2030.

And shoppers seem to like the names. In a 2020 survey from The European Consumer Organization, about 42 percent of responders said they believed “meaty” names for plant-based products should be permitted, providing products were clearly labeled vegetarian or vegan. Just 25 percent believed such names should be banned.

A spokesman for Copa-Cogeca said the organization did not believe that consumers were unable to tell the difference between meat and plant-based products, and that farmers were not against vegetable alternatives. But differentiating the markets, he added — much like those of butter and margarine — was among a host of initiatives that would support struggling farmers already trying to adapt to a world more focused on global sustainability.

Some said the proposal would provide more fodder for critics of the European Union’s penchant for overregulation. Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland, argued that the bloc should only legislate “where there are impediments to the free movement of goods, services money and people.”

He described the amendment as “overkill” that would only bolster the arguments of those who campaigned for Britain’s exit from the union: “This is one of these symbolic sad cases — a bit like legislating on the curve of cucumbers.”

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