French war on ‘veggie burgers’ comes to Brussels

"To put it simply, if there are German producers, for example, who want to sell their vegetarian steaks in France, they won’t be allowed because they are called steak,” said Sarah Champagne, a policy officer at the French Vegetarian Association. Champagne added that “this raises a problem of equal treatment between member states on the European market.”

The French rule banning terms like “veggie burgers” was pushed by MP Barbara Bessot Ballot from President Emmanuel Macron's La République En Marche party as part of broader legislation on transparency and what information food products should disclose to buyers, such as the country of origin for honey and all meat products.

The law came with heavy backing from the meat industry, which has long campaigned against such vegetarian product names in a bid to preserve a sector facing challenges of declining incomes for farmers, falling meat consumption and increasing demands that agriculture take a more ecological approach.

In its recent Farm to Fork strategy, Brussels calls for Europeans to eat less red meat and promotes meat alternatives, citing health and environmental reasons.

A spokesperson for France’s meat industry federation Interbev said the French law “represents real progress in terms of transparency and information for consumers,” adding: “A product made from vegetal proteins shouldn’t be causing doubt in the minds of consumers by presenting itself as a product of animal origin, both in terms of its appearance and its nutritional properties … These products are simply not meat, whether in terms of their composition, their nutritional value or their taste.”

Members of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee are debating similar rules to restrict how veggie products are described as part of the EU’s revamped Common Agricultural Policy. The discussion is still ongoing and the shape of an amendment on the subject will be decided later this month, a spokesperson said.

“The new French law will definitely have an influence on what’s decided on the EU level,” one official close to the talks said.

The European Vegetarian Union also argues in its complaint that the French law and any other similar national legislation should “be put on hold” until EU law “provides for solutions applicable across the internal market.”

Brussels’ biggest food industry lobby group FoodDrinkEurope said it’s important that rules be harmonized across the bloc.

"I wouldn’t like to have a decision of the French parliament that is different than the German one and then different from Italian one," said Marco Settembri, the president of FoodDrinkEurope.

There is precedent for France's restrictions. In 2017, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that terms such as "milk," "cheese" and "butter" should be reserved for animal products, forbidding popular almond milks and vegan butters from marketing themselves as such.

Even if Brussels does adopt restrictions for meat alternatives, vegetarian groups say that would create hurdles in the immediate term as foodmakers adapt to new packaging requirements, but they are still optimistic about the future of the market.

“Of course we are very clearly opposed to the law and we’ve had quite a lot of contact with producers and retailers who sell vegetarian products and who are a bit worried,” said Champagne from the French Vegetarian Association.

"But we are quite confident, and so are the producers, that this market will develop still,” she added.

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