Empowering consumers to adopt more sustainable food habits is one of the foremost goals of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. This goal is diluted by a recent amendment passed by the EU Parliament that imposes strict limits on how substitutes for dairy products can be described and marketed.
The dairy sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Research from Greenpeace recently revealed that greenhouse gases from animal farming in the European Union (EU) account for 17% of the EU’s total emissions, more than the cumulative emissions from all cars and vans. The Food and Agricultural Organisation has reported that the dairy sector’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015 due to a 30% increase in milk production to meet increased consumer demand.
The Regulation and what has changed
Under Article 78 read with Part III of Annex VII of the EU Regulation relating to agricultural products (Regulation (EU) No. 1308/2013), the term “milk” can only be used to denote “the normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milklings”, or in other words, animal dairy products. Furthermore, the use of the term “milk products” is limited to products derived exclusively from milk. Similarly, terms such as “cream”, “butter”, “yogurt”, and “cheese” are reserved for milk products only.
A new amendment (Amendment 171) passed on October 23, 2020 introduces stricter rules on “protecting” the designation of the terms associated with dairy products, which lawmakers argue is necessary to avoid confusing consumers. The amendment places prohibitions on the use of such terms under three broad headings:
- “any direct or indirect commercial use of the designation”, including (i) for comparative purposes with non-dairy products, (ii) insofar as it “exploits the reputation associated with the designation”;
- “any misuse, imitation or evocation” of the designation, even if the true nature of the product has been indicated through expressions such as “style”, “type”, “method”, “as produced in”, “imitation”, “flavour”, “substitute”, “like”, etc.; and
- “any other commercial indication or practice” that could mislead the consumer regarding the true nature or composition of the product.
What does this mean in practice? It’s about much more than a name. The law could potentially be interpreted in a way that restricts the use of terms like “dairy-free alternative” due to its reference to dairy, obliges the producers of non-dairy products to use different packaging to that used for dairy foods, and censors information comparing plant-based products with milk products in terms of health benefits or lower greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a product currently marketed as a “yoghurt-style dessert” and sold in a typical yoghurt carton may have to be described, advertised, and packaged differently in future. The ensuing process of re-naming, re-branding and re-marketing is likely to entail significant costs for businesses that produce plant-based alternatives to dairy products.
Double standards for dairy and meat products
Interestingly, a similar amendment for meat products (Amendment 165) was not passed, with the EU Parliament refusing to restrict the designation of terms like “sausage”, steak”, and “burger” to meat-based products only. This internal inconsistency effectively means that a term like “vegan burger” is permissible, while “vegan cheese” is not.
Undermining EU Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy
Amendment 171 limits the availability of information on alternatives to dairy products. This jars with the promotion of sustainable food habits and consumer empowerment to make the necessary dietary changes in the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy. Released in May 2020 as part of the EU Green Deal Framework, the Strategy aims to foster “a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system”. According to the strategy document, “[c]onsumers should be empowered to choose sustainable food and all actors in the food chain should see this as their responsibility and opportunity” (Chapter 1). The Commission’s intention to “examine ways to harmonise voluntary green claims and to create a sustainable labelling framework that covers, in synergy with other relevant initiatives, the nutritional, climate, environmental and social aspects of food products” (Clause 2.4, Farm to Fork Strategy) is also worth highlighting.
Responding to the amendment in a joint letter, the European Plant-based Foods Association (ENSA) and forty other stakeholders emphasized that describing non-dairy products as such clearly indicates that the products do not contain dairy-based components and thus helps consumers make informed choices. They also complained that the restrictive measures effected by Amendment 171 were disproportionate and created “undue additional barriers to the expansion and development of innovative segments of food industry in the European Union.”
EU climate goals: a lost cause without demand-side interventions
Dairy-sector emissions are a huge negative externality. These emissions can be tackled through interventions on the supply side (e.g. improvements in cattle-rearing methods to improve production efficiency) and on the demand side (e.g. reduced consumption of dairy products). Research shows that, on their own, even ambitious supply-side interventions will not make a significant dent in emissions from the livestock sector, and a shift in global meat and dairy consumption habits will play a crucial role in reducing the sector’s carbon footprint. A Nature study found that the environmental impacts of food systems could not be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes, particularly the substitution of animal products with less carbon-intensive food types.
Information is key to a future shift to more sustainable diets. Amendment 171 can significantly curtail how the producers of dairy substitutes brand their goods, which could in turn reduce their accessibility or attractiveness for consumers. Even the use of the word “dairy” or references to a product’s lower carbon footprint in comparison to a similar dairy product may expose companies to litigation. By effectively reducing the availability of information about potential plant-based substitutes for milk and other dairy products, the recent amendment disregards consumer interests and disincentivizes a turn away from dairy products.
This amendment is a regressive change that is completely at variance with the goals of sustainability, transparency and consumer empowerment expressed in the Farm to Fork Strategy, as well as being inconsistent with the corresponding policy for meat. It is difficult to envisage substantial demand-side changes in the area of dairy consumption in the European Union without a more progressive policy on how plant-based alternatives to dairy can be described.