The European Parliament Agriculture Committee (AGRI) supported compromise Amendment Number 41 on April 1. The amendment calls for a ban on denominations of plant-based food products as containing meat or dairy products. In essence, names such as “veggie burger” or “soy milk” would not be allowed anymore, as they mislead consumers into believing they contain either meat or milk.
The committee’s decision follows a ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice from June 2017. In the case Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb eV v. TofuTown.com GmbH, the Luxembourg-based court decided that companies could not label their products under these names and that, despite the defendants asserting that their products were clearly labeled as being plant-based, such a prohibition would be lawful. Now the European Parliament wants to act on the ruling and create a definitive law prohibiting these denominations.
French socialist MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Eric Andrieu said name legislation proposals were not a result of lobbying. And that’s probably the only thing he is right about since environmentalists and large companies are currently big on the meat substitute train. Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper” is currently making headlines, and Nestlé is set to launch its own meatless burger this month. Nestlé itself would also be hit by this legislation, and depending on the framing, the courts could further claim that Burger King’s “Whopper” suggests it is a regular burger. Oddly, I find myself on the same side as Greenpeace, which asked lawmakers to vote against the amendment as it would infringe on consumer choice. Clearly, lobbying isn’t quite the issue here.
This decision by AGRI is a symptom of a political culture of distrust in consumers’ individual choices. Consumers can’t be shown ads for sugary drinks, otherwise they will gulp down two liters of iced tea per day; consumers can’t be allowed to switch to harm-reducing products such as e-cigarettes because, otherwise, they will diverge from the notion of abstinence preached by public health advocates; consumers cannot be trusted with affordable alcohol because we’ll all drink ourselves to death.
Strangely, the same consumers who don’t even know that a veggie burger does not contain meat are apparently responsible enough to vote in the European elections next month, where they elect representatives who legislate areas such as security, long-term economic planning, massive foreign aid budgets, and the intricacies of international tax regulations and information sharing. If my most vocal supporters were incapable of distinguishing meat from vegetables, I’d probably begin to question my suitability for public office. But for those making public policy decisions based on feelings rather than on facts, this is probably not of great concern.
There is a persistent downside to this type of policy: If consumers are infantilized to the degree hypothesized in the previously mentioned case, they are more likely to call upon the government to solve their consumer-related problems for them. As a result, legislators are increasingly inundated with “the government ought to do something about it” as opposed to finding innovative solutions to market problems. In fact, the example of the veggie burger is exactly that: consumers who want to give up meat—or at least reduce their consumption—being given a real alternative that large producers have embraced. Rather than celebrating the accurate response of the market, lawmakers instead burden entrepreneurs with regulation.
Make no mistake: While Nestlé and Restaurant Brands International (the parent company of Burger King) might be annoyed by these eventual changes, it’s small businesses that would suffer the greatest impact. The Impossible Whopper can be renamed “Vegetable Delight” or something of the sort, then animated with the help of a large marketing budget. Your hipster food truck doesn’t have the same luxury; this proposal would add one more to an already long list of compliance costs to which it is subject. Would EU law enforcement also do random checks by investigating small burger restaurants and scaring them away from “veggie burger” menus with the threat of crippling lawsuits? Time will tell.
It’s all getting a bit ridiculous. I was about to write that consumers aren’t children, but even a six-year-old can grasp the concept of the name “tofu burger.”
Maybe it’s the legislators who are the real children.
This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.
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