There was a time when veggie burgers meant dry nut-based patties that looked and tasted about as appetising as gravel.
Not anymore though. The growth of vegetarianism in the 90s and more recently veganism, has inspired a large number of companies to perfect burgers that their champions claim are as succulent and as tasty as their meat-based counterparts. Startups like Beyond Meat in the US and The Vegetarian Butcher in the Netherlands are growing into big businesses, with their products available globally in both supermarkets and restaurants
The arguments for eating less meat have been trotted out so many times that it seems pointless to replicate them here. It’s clear though that the huge growth in veganism and fake meat has been driven by health and environmental concerns.
So you would have thought that now would be a good time for the world’s parliaments and governments to encourage the growth of non-meat and dairy-based alternatives.
Enter the EU agricultural lobby
This week the EU parliament is debating whether to bar restaurants and shops in the continent from marketing products as “veggie burgers” or “vegan sausages. ”
An amendment to a farming bill would also prohibit retailers and manufacturers from describing non-dairy items as being “like” or in the “style” of milk, butter or cheese.
So the future for European vegans could be eating veggie discs or tubes in a bun with a touch of Gary (the name that jokingly became common parlance for vegan cheese in the UK.)
The interesting part though is that the European Parliament cannot impose the changes on its own, but would adopt a position ahead of negotiations with the bloc’s member countries.
To use a rural metaphor that I am sure that EU farmers are very familiar with – isn’t this move a bit like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted?
Vegetarianism might have been a largely British, Scandinavian and German lead phenomenon. But the influence of social media, in particular vegan celebrity influencers from Beyonce to Lionel Messi, means that veganism has become a continent-wide movement. You can find vegan restaurants run by Michelin-starred staff chefs in Paris, superb plant-based cafes in Riga and supermarkets stacked with fake meat products in Milan.
In an example of the type of doublespeak that is seemingly straight out of 1984 EU Farmers say the measures are needed to protect consumers from being misled. European farmers association Copa Cogeca says the European Union should put an end to “surrealistic” descriptions. It argues that using such terms as “vegan burger” would open a Pandora’s box that would confuse consumers and harm farmers.
Mmm. Sorry guys but I wonder if you are a bit too late to this particular plant-based party. Consumers know exactly what they are eating. Describing them as being confused in condescending nonsense.
Were the farming lobby to be a bit more upfront about it, they might not have turned themselves into the butt of a thousand vegan jokes. They are concerned about the momentum of a movement which ultimately might destroy their business. They want the EU to offer them some protection.
The proprietor of my local vegan cafe, the Muddy Puddle in Stoke Newington, greeted the news with a bit of a wry smile. Her take is that in this instance the publicity generated will only encourage more people to try vegan burgers, oops I mean discs.
There is also the small issue of the fact that the UK, the country which has the most vegans and veggies in the continent will be leaving the EU very shortly and has a government that’s highly unlikely to impose terminology which it feels might impact consumer choice.
Besides in veganism as in many instances, the United States takes the cultural lead. Americans don’t care what the EU wants its consumers to ask for when they fancy a plant-based meal. They will still use the terms burgers, sausages etc
As Sara Collinge, host of the podcast Vegan Curious points out the meat industry has indulged in a bit of creative labeling itself, “ You don’t eat cow or pig do you? You eat beef or pork which feels like it is a step away from actually eating animal flesh.”
“The EU can do what it likes. The rank hypocrisy of an organisation that prides itself on doing its utmost to reduce carbon emissions yet creates legislation that is counter-intuitive to its goals is ridiculous.
There’s really no way a generation which has been chomping on veggie burgers since birth is suddenly going to start calling them veggie discs.”
It should be noted too that the food lobby isn’t too keen on the EU initiative. Unilever is the ringleader of a group which called the proposals “disproportionate and out of step with the current climate”.
The future of farming is complex. Like many industries, it will need to adapt and evolve to meet the challenges brought about both climate change and the pandemic. EU Parliament time and energy might be better spent working out ways in which the industry can change.