In October 2020, the European Commission voted to ban dairy-related terms for plant-based alternatives. Amendment 171 proposes to ban terms such as ‘buttery’ and ‘creamy’ for purely plant-based products.
The vote followed on from a 2017 ruling, which saw the European Court of Justice ban the use of dairy names such as ‘milk’, ‘butter’, ‘cheese’, and ‘yoghurt’ in the dairy-free category.
Now, seven months on from the Parliamentary vote, and ahead of the EU’s ‘super trilogue’ – in which EU institutions will negotiate the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – the Parliament has withdrawn the amendment.
FoodNavigator was unable to ascertain exactly what drove the Parliament to drop the draft legislation, aside from growing resistance from plant-based makers and consumers.
ProVeg International credits the signatories of its anti-AM171 petition. A total of 456,000 consumers signed the public petition, which was spearheaded by ProVeg, Upfield, and Oatly, alongside 96 other associations.
Other AM171 opponents include WWF, Greenpeace, the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), and environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg.
Policy expert Guy Pe’er, ecologist at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), also believes that ‘public scrutiny’ may have played a role.
“The previous attempt to do so quietly in October has demonstrated this quite well: there was a strong public uproar about the [proposed ‘veggie burger’ ban] leading to the rejection of the ban in Parliament, while on the same date a parallel ban for dairy replacements had less attention and consequently passed,” he told FoodNavigator. “This demonstrates the value of public awareness and demand for transparency.”
Without having direct insight into the Parliament’s recent U-turn, Pe’er ‘guesses’ that MEPs ‘realised this can lead to shaming’ at a time when ‘the Parliament is…performing dreadfully with respect to the environment’.
Implications of Amendment 171 were that the following would be prohibited:
- Familiar packaging formats, such as a carton of plant-based milk or a block of plant-based margarine;
- Visual depictions of plant-based foods if they could be judged to be ‘evoking’ or ‘imitating’ diary – for example a milky swirl on a package of oat drink;
- Science-based claims that compare plant-based foods to dairy foods, for example ‘half the carbon emissions of dairy butter’, across all communications;
- Allergen information such as ‘does not contain milk’; and
- Descriptive terms such as ‘creamy’, ‘buttery’, ‘use like cooking cream’, or ‘vegan alternative to yoghurt’.
Big Dairy soured by amendment withdrawal?
The major advocates for Amendment 171, ahead of the October 2020 vote, belonged to the European dairy industry.
At the time, the European Dairy Association (EDA) said the protection of dairy terms is ‘crucial’ to the sector. “Non-dairy products cannot hijack our dairy terms and the well-deserved reputation of excellence in milk and dairy,” it noted.
When the Parliament voted in favour Amendment 171, the EDA said it was a ‘good day’ for the ‘EU lactosphère, for European consumers and citizens, and for Europe’.
One would be forgiven, therefore, for expecting the Parliament’s withdrawal to make for a ‘bad day’ in the dairy world. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The European Dairy Association (EDA) claims that during the recent ‘opaque’ trilogue, the amendment was ‘perverted’ by ‘some forces’. A newly instated ‘compromise text’ of Amendment 171 contradicted the text voted in by the Parliament last October, according to EDA secretary general Alexander Anton.
“So, the withdrawal of this ‘compromise’ amendment text is good news for the lactosphère.”
Indeed, the European dairy sector is celebrating EU legislators’ decision to protect dairy terms – including ‘milk’, ‘whey’, ‘cream’, ‘butter’, ‘buttermilk’, ‘cheese’, and ‘yoghurt’ – within the CAP.
“Europe has delivered: with the future CAP, the European institutions have decided a modern and future-proof legal framework that assures that European agriculture is in line with today’s societal expectations,” said EDA president Giuseppe Ambrosi.
“The new rules for the Common Market Organisation with the continued protection of our dairy terms and operational market management tools are a cornerstone for our success – the whole EU dairy sector will mobilise all forces on our goal: ‘uniting dairy excellence and ambition’.”
We have protected a ‘deeply restricted’ status quo
ProVeg International has rejoiced at the news. The organisation believes it would be ‘absurd’ to ‘censor plant-based products’ at the same time as ‘telling consumers to switch to a plant-based diet’.
Vice president Jasmijn de Boo likened the proposed ban to censoring electric cars or recycled paper. “We applaud the EU for its clear-sightedness under immense pressure from environmentally reckless interests.”
For de Boo, ‘common sense has prevailed’. However, the vice president stressed: “It’s important to remember the existing restrictions remain: we still cannot refer to plant milk or oat cream. So we have protected the status quo, but a deeply restricted status quo.”
Plant-based is the future, she told FoodNavigator. “There’s such innovation and opportunity within the sector, this decision reflects the EU’s understanding of the huge economic potential of plant-based.”
When asked whether she expects the dairy industry will attempt to overthrow the decision, de Boo said she imagines the dairy industry will create more opportunities to protect itself. “But it simply isn’t sustainable, and climate change is more important than protecting an industry that will not adapt.
“There’s a fair chance that the conservative dairy lobby will try again to pass harmful legislation, for example in the FIC regulation.”
Voicing concern for plant-based manufacturers, The Vegan Society noted that had the ruling gone the other way, it ‘could have had a detrimental effect’ on brands that may be have been forced to spend ‘thousands of pounds’ to redesign their packaging. “It could [have] become illegal for plant-based milks and yoghurts to use the same cartons and pots as regular dairy products.”
The Vegan Society’s Head of Campaigns, Louise Davies, said the charity is pleased with the European Parliament’s decision. “Now is not the time to be restricting the plant-based business sector.
“This was simply an attempt by the dairy industry to hold back the rise of the vegan movement and would have done absolutely nothing to support consumer understanding, instead it would have had a hugely negative impact on plant-based businesses, brand and manufacturers.”
Dairy replacements ‘attacked for the wrong reason’
From an environmental perspective, iDiv and UFZ’s Pe’er said he was also pleased to hear the amendment proposal had been withdrawn.
“In general, we see a major attack on meat and dairy replacements, since they compete over the market for meat. These attacks indicate that competition exists, which from a scientific perspective, is quite welcome.
“Animals are key contributors of greenhouse has emissions, both directly (methane) and indirectly by driving land-use changes,” we were told, “for example via deforestation in Brazil to make space for either soy or pastures.”
The policy expert continued: “Science has been very clear with regards to the urgent need to reduce such consumption, and therefore the availability of meat and dairy replacements is more than welcome.”
Further, dairy alternative products do not confuse consumers, according to Pe’er, who described statements to the contrary as providing ‘disinformation’. “Surveys show that only a minute number of people might be confused in products are placed next to each other, and in most supermarkets they actually aren’t.
“In other words, vegetarian and vegan replacements of meat and dairy products are attacked for the wrong reasons – for economic interests rather than based on any rigorous evidence.”
More sustainable production and consumption is desirable from a scientific perspective, he enthused. “It should be accordingly be supported by policymakers rather than opposed by them. We should therefore welcome the fact that the Parliament has withdrawn this counter-productive amendment proposal.”