Opinion

France’s Attempt to Appease the Meat Industry through Meat Label Bans

Hamburger
Published Apr 19, 2024
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Growing technological advancements and an increasing health-conscious consumer base have revolutionized meat substitutes and plant-based alternatives. To ensure transparency and food safety, packaging and labeling requirements of novel foods should be revised. However, there have been worrying cases of governments feigning interest in consumer welfare, and imposing restrictive food labels on plant-based meat manufacturers to appease the meat industry.

Importance of accurate food packaging and labeling requirements

The significance of accurate and transparent food labeling cannot be overstated, especially with growing dietary preferences and rising instances of food allergies. Food labelings, such as Nutrient Content Claims, Nutrition Facts Labels, and allergen declarations, help consumers make informed decisions based on their dietary lifestyle and nutritional needs. Not only does a misleading label result in consumer confusion and distrust of the brand, but it can also pose significant health risks to those with life-threatening allergies.

With the rising popularity and diversifying varieties of plant-based alternatives, there has been ongoing discourse on updating food label laws to ensure safe consumption. Labeling guidelines should be based on consumer interest to allow clear distinctions of the nutritional differences between alternatives and conventional food items of animal origin. However, according to the European Vegetarian Union, an umbrella organization representing vegan and vegetarian societies in Europe, France’s most recent food label proposal is politically-motivated to appease the meat and dairy industries.

France’s Ban on Meat Labels for Plant-based Meat

Based on Tridge’s Analysis and Market Entry Recommendations for Plant-Based Meat Alternatives In Europe: 2023 Report, France has one of the largest plant-based meat markets, being the fifth-largest in Europe with EUR 425.7 million in market size in 2022.

Despite promising future market growth with Statista’s estimate of CAGR 9.18%, France is the first European Union (EU) nation to propose restrictive measures banning the usage of meat-related terms such as ‘steak’ and ‘sausage’ in the marketing and packaging of plant-based meat. However, the decree was ultimately suspended in 2022 by France’s highest court, Conseil d’Etat, for vague language, potential acute damage to the plant-based companies, and legal uncertainty of a labeling ban under EU law. Yet, in Feb-24, the French government submitted a revised decree again with greater specificity.

Figure 1. French Plant-based Companies with ‘Banned’ Terminologies

Source: Carrefour

The new decree prohibits 21 meat-related terms, such as ‘steak’ and ‘ham’ in the packaging of plant-based meat. The decree also specifies a secondary list prohibiting 120 meat-related terms such as ‘bacon’ and ‘sausage’ once the product exceeds the small percentage of plant proteins ranging from 0.5% to 6%. If passed, the decree would go into effect on May 1, 2024, giving companies a total of three months to comply with the changes and a year to sell off their existing stocks before a penalty fine ranging from €1,500 to €7,500 is applied.

Table 1. France’s 21 Banned Terminologies in plant-based foodstuff

Source: EUR-Lex

Motivation behind the Meat Label Ban

Although France’s agriculture minister explained that the decree is to mitigate consumer confusion and an “issue of transparency and loyalty,” the government faces heavy scrutiny from environmental groups and the plant-based sectors. The Global CEO of ProVeg International, a non-governmental organization aiming to reduce consumption of animal products, called the ban “counterproductive” and argued that consumers are not confused by the language.

This view is supported by the ruling of a five-year legal case between meat lobby group Interbev and plant-based meat producer Nutrition & Santé Group. The French Supreme Court in Jan-24 found that French consumers can distinguish between ‘steak’ and ‘veggie steak,’ hence siding with plant meat producers. Yet, the French government feigns interest in consumer welfare to conceal the real motivation: to appease the meat industry and angry livestock farmers.

With the growing plant-based meat market, the meat industry has persistently been raising complaints to the government about the confusion plant-based meat brings to consumers. Part of a Europe-wide farmer’s protest, France’s 2024 farmer protests and road blockages sought lower production costs, protection against imports, and loosening environmental policies. To defuse the situation, the French government announced the restrictions on lab-grown meat and potential restrictions on meat and dairy substitutes as part of their list of concessions.

Current Status and Future Outlook of the Plant-based Meat Industry

The decree puts France at the top, carrying some of the strictest plant-based meat laws. The ban will incur significant costs to plant-based companies, including repackaging, redesigning, and marketing costs, within the next three months. In addition, as imports are not subjected to the ban, only domestic brands will have to change their products, with ambiguous wording, while imports will have clear, intuitive meat-related terms.

To the relief of the plant-based sector, the Conseil d’Etat suspended the decree for the second time on April 10. The suspension will be upheld until the court hears back from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on whether introducing such a regulation by individual member states complies with EU law.

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