Let them eat plant-based cake

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Yagi Studio
Image: Getty/Yagi Studio

Related tags Dairy alternatives

Why is the dairy industry embroiling in a silly battle about the labelling of plant-based alternatives?

They're one of the wealthiest rock bands of all time. The Rolling Stones — or their management at least — are also famously mean about their rights. For years Mick and Keith claimed songwriting royalties for the Verve’s magnificent Bitter Sweet Symphony, a track which uses just five notes of an obscure symphonic version of one of their songs.  

They’ve also taken on the tribute bands, those acts which aim to look and sound just like the real thing. The Rolling Clones were once ‘stunned’ to receive a fax threatening legal action unless they changed their name and stopped using the Stones' famous tongue-and-lips logo.  

The sadly now departed Tina Turner, too, once attempted to sue a tribute act for looking too similar to her. Why do these royals of rock bother? Those mimicking them are by and large small fry; in it not for the cash but out of love for their heroes. And the people watching them? They obviously know the deal. Anyone paying a tenner to watch a Stones tribute band at their local pub and who really expects to see the real Mick Jagger would be, ahem, a fool to cry.

'Draconian' labelling move feared

Which brings us to dairy alternatives. Similarly, it’s clear as day to most consumers that these products contain no animal ingredients but aim to replicate the taste, texture, and function of animal products such as milk, cheese and butter.

Greenpeace, however, fears new guidelines to be issued to trading standards officers in the UK on the labelling of plant-based alternatives to dairy products could force the relabelling of common products such as vegan cheese.

Previously trading standards officers have taken a light-touch approach to regulations on the use of dairy-derived names for plant-based foods.

However, documents obtained by Unearthed ​reveal the dairy sector wants the government to adopt a far stricter application of the rules where plant-based products, already banned from describing themselves as ‘milk’, could see that treatment extended to cheese and yoghurt, even if prefaced by ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’.

Under the draft guidance, brands would be banned from using descriptors such as ‘yoghurt-style’ or ‘cheddar-type’, or homophones or misspellings such as ‘mylk’. The draft suggested plant-based products should even be prohibited from saying they are ‘not milk’ - or describing themselves as ‘alternatives’ to dairy products. 

This kind of move would make the UK one of the most ‘draconian’ nations in regards to what we can and cannot call these sorts of products, warned Marisa Heath, CEO of the Plant Based Food Alliance UK. “Consumers know what they are buying and they are not stupid,”​ she said. “It should be left to them to make their choices in the supermarket.” 

The move, she added, would send out the message that the UK is not a good place for businesses to innovate, manufacture and retail in this sector.

Dairy UK, a trade association, responded to say it is not proposing to add any new rules, merely issuing an interpretation of existing law which has been in force for quite some time and which, said chief executive Dr Judith Bryans, “is intended to make labelling and marketing clearer and minimise opportunities for consumers to be misled. The existing law is a reflection of the fact that dairy foods are unique in their nutrient richness and an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet and cannot be replaced by alternative imitations.”

We don’t, however, have a protein deficiency problem in the UK (it’s fibre which is the problem). Average intakes of protein are above the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) including in vegetarians and vegans. Neither do alt dairy players pretend to have the same nutritional credentials as conventional dairy.

Does plant-based dairy really treaten the established order? 

It’s also up for debate whether plant-based dairy alternatives present any significant threat to the established order.

According to Greenpeace, using figures from the Good Food Institute based on NielsonIQ data, the UK is one of the leading consumers of plant-based products in the world, with plant-based drinks seeing sales increase by 24% between 2020 and 2022 to £276 million. It now has a market share of 7%.

Plant-based milk unit sales growth in the UK actually fell from 17% in 2021 to 6% in 2022. Total plant-based food sales in the UK fell 3% in 2022 in value terms, mirroring the fact the plant-based sector growth in Europe is not growing at the rate that its supporters desire​.

What’s more, plant-based cheese sales in the UK fell 12% in 2022 and had a 1% market share of the total cheese category. Plant-based yoghurt sales fell 4% in value terms in 2022 and had a 3% market share of the total yoghurt category. The value of plant-based yoghurt sales decreased by 7% between 2020 and 2022 and unit sales decreased by 14%. Plant-based ice cream sales fell 2% in value terms in 2022.

Not that this has stopped the dairy industry having skin in the game. For example, Cathedral City, one the UK’s favourite cheese brands, has just expanded its ‘Our Plant Based’ range in Tesco stores nationwide by releasing a Spring Onion and Cracked Black Pepper Alternative to Soft Cheese.

Much of the growth in the plant-based milk category is also down to the fact it was less impacted by inflation and price increases in 2022. Plant-based milk prices increased by 6%, whereas conventional milk prices increased by 21%.

And while nearly half (48%) of UK consumers do drink at least one plant-based milk alternative, it’s common for consumers to buy both real milk and​ an alternative.

It might be argued therefore that dairy alternatives are a niche that don’t pose a commensurate threat to the dairy industry as to justify such stringent labelling rules. You can’t always get what you want, eh?

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