Meat-free chicken breast or plant-based prawns — which whets your appetite more? Very likely, neither. Both names of these novel foods come across as so unnatural that they do not seem fit to appeal to the average person’s taste buds. However, this is just what the agricultural committee of the European Union (EU) left producers and marketing experts of plant-based, cell-cultured, and insect-based products to deal with earlier this year. They are having to find new terminology for their products in this fairly young market which is expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 4.0%, reaching $19.8 million by 2027.
The EU’s move was inspired by the European Court of Justice’s decision in 2017 to ban the use of “milk, butter, and cream” for non-dairy products. Exceptions were made for ice cream and almond milk, but soy milk lost out. Thus, the EU agricultural committee prohibited the use of words such as “burger,” “steak,” “sausage,” and “escalope” for novel foods (e.g., “veggie burger”).
Against the background of a growing world population needing to be fed but craving a protein-rich diet that is currently based on animal agriculture, the EU’s decision seems uptight and somehow at odds with the impending reality of our times. That is, more and more scientists and leaders have been recognizing the need to move from animal agriculture to plants as the center of our global food system to be able to handle climate change and its disastrous impacts on water resources, biodiversity, and the integrity of the entire ecosystem. Not surprisingly, the Greens political party’s resistance to the European parliament’s move has been mounting. They hold that linguistic purists are protecting the meat and dairy industries.
But is this fight in the EU really about that? Does it only come down to when the literal meaning of a word shall be used versus its figurative meaning?
Surely, the EU is perceived by many to be a bureaucratic monster prone to lose itself in long-lasting detailed and factual discussions, creating problems where there are none, and justifying this, as laid down in the Treaty of Rome, by its aim to respect the cultures of its member states and bind them together.
Nevertheless, in this case, the European parliament’s decision for linguistic purity does reflect a valid concern; it is one that goes beyond the desire to preserve European culture and history in our fast-changing world. It reminds novel foods producers of their responsibility toward consumers to maintain transparency about the origins, contents, and production methods of their new and innovative foods.
In fact, branding a novel food “veggie burger” can be confusing for consumers because its name does not clearly convey what is meaty and what is un-meaty: Does this food contain animal flesh or only plant flesh? If it consists of only plant flesh: How can consumers quickly figure out whether they will be eating plant-based or cultured/synthetic food? Or even insect-based food? To prevent further confusion:
- Plant-based food is defined as a finished product consisting of ingredients derived from plants that include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, or seeds with few or no animal products. So, it means that one is eating more plants and less meat.
- Cultured/synthetic food or cell-based meat is made from real animal cells but is grown in a food production plant instead of being taken from animals raised in captivity and slaughtered for consumption.
- Insect-based food is touted as a sustainable and cheap food that is high in protein, vitamins, fiber, and minerals and emits fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs. There are almost 2,000 edible bugs worldwide, including 235 butterflies and moths; 344 beetles; 313 ants, bees, and wasps; 239 grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches; 39 termites; and 20 dragonflies and cicadas. Insect farming is a small but growing industry globally. The International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, a lobby group, has forecast that Europe’s insect protein production could surge to 1.2 million tonnes by 2025 from about 5,000 tonnes currently, and Denmark is aiming to be a leader in this burgeoning industry with inValuable, a €3.7 million ($4.1 million) research project.
So, when such novel and innovative foods are entering the market — the first insect-based burger was introduced in Germany by a supermarket in April 2018 — the EU’s stance does not necessarily reflect a lack of solidarity with our planet. Rather it refects the need to have its citizens accurately informed and ensure they are not misled. In this sense, the new members voted into the EU’s agricultural committee in the European election in May agreed in mid-October to continue working with the old committee’s draft that had been approved in April.
At the same time, its decision confronts producers of novel foods with the reality of the market: Competition demands creativity, and new creations call for new names.
One last note for producers who are dealing with the EU: Be careful to respect its harmonized rules when making health or nutritional claims on foodstuffs based on nutrient profiles. One of the EU’s key objectives is to guarantee that any claim that is made on a food label is clear and substantiated by scientific evidence.