Labelling roundup: French court rules consumers aren’t confused by plant-based steak, but in Italy new restrictions undermine home-grown producers

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plant-based ham and salamy from Vegfather on a healthy sharing board
Photo: Vegfather

Although it was rejected at the EU level in 2020, attempts to restrict the language used by producers to describe their plant-based meat products have continued to rumble on in a handful of national contexts. However, recent decisions in France and Belgium are cause for optimism.

The French Supreme Court has ruled that consumers are not confused by ‘meaty’ terms such as sausage and steak on plant-based meat products. Likewise, in Belgium, the government has dropped proposals to restrict plant-based meat labelling. 

The news is not all positive however, as the Italian Government has recently introduced new restrictions on the labelling of plant-based products, banning the use of meat-related names. The rules were introduced at the same time as the controversial cultivated meat ban at the end of 2023. 

Why is this important?

Everyday language like “burger” and “sausage” help people to know what to expect in terms of the taste, texture, preparation and appearance of plant-based meat products. Consumer surveys show that the vast majority of European citizens overwhelmingly back the continued use of “meaty” names for plant-based products. There’s no reason to change the status quo in this way.

It is generally understood that far from improving consumer understanding, banning familiar terms can actually undermine, not increase, transparency for consumers. Everyone knows a burger can be grilled and served in a bun – while a “plant-based disc” presents more of a mystery. Given there is very little evidence suggesting any such confusion exists, restrictions seem unnecessary, placing costly rebranding demands on plant-based startups and creating barriers for consumers wanting to make healthier and more sustainable choices. 

Beyond this, such rules set a bizarre precedent that does not exist elsewhere. What about beef tomatoes, or hot dogs? 

French court ruling

In light of these arguments, the French Supreme Court ruled to uphold the right of plant-based producers to use meaty terms for their products – concluding a lengthy dispute between Interbev, a representative of the French beef industry, and Nutrition & Santé, a producer of plant-based steaks (steaks végétaux).

The ruling was a definitive one, and allegations of misleading business practices were dismissed at all levels of the court. The judges determined that consumers cannot be misled, given that labels and advertising consistently clarify the plant-based composition of the products. They also concluded that even when these products are displayed in conventional meat departments in stores, they remain clearly identifiable.

Belgium moves away from restrictions

In Belgium, the government, which had initially planned to address the question of meat-related terminology through the establishment of a working group, has changed its stance. Economy Minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne announced that he does not intend to establish guidelines for the labelling of plant-based products. The proposed plans had faced strong criticism for potentially harming a product category that is popular with consumers, can help tackle climate change and contributes to improved public health.

New restrictions in Italy

These developments in France and Belgium hold particular significance for the newly imposed restrictions in Italy. Alleged consumer confusion is one of the reasons the Italian Government used to justify the ban on meat-related terms for plant-based products – although they did not present any data supporting this. 

The new rules risk stifling a growing sector in Italy, which saw sales of plant-based foods grow 21% in 2020-2022, with a turnover exceeding €600 million. In the context of the European single market, such shortsighted policies not only limit consumer access to more sustainable food choices, they also disproportionately harm Italian companies. 

Francesca Gallelli, Public Affairs Consultant at the Good Food Institute Europe, said: “The Italian ban has overlooked both the evidence and the economic impact this measure will have on Italian companies in the sector. As seen in France, these restrictions not only fail to protect consumers but also contribute to confusion. Consumer surveys indicate that an overwhelming majority of Europeans support the retention of meat-related terms for plant-based products.

“Eliminating the possibility of using familiar terms to promote product recognition not only harms the economy but also prevents Italians from enjoying more sustainable and healthy food choices, while simultaneously contributing to environmental protection.”
In 2020, the European Parliament rejected a proposal to ban companies from using terms such as “hamburger” and “steak” for plant-based products.

If you are a plant-based producer in the Italian market, we are seeking your insights into the impacts of these restrictions for you. Please complete our survey here by 28 January.

Author

Elena Walden

Elena Walden Senior Policy Manager

Elena works with policymakers to secure clear labelling rules for sustainable proteins.