It’s time to ban this dishonest food labelling
PUBLISHED: 06:55 10 May 2018
Vive la France for bringing in more honest food labels, says Andy Newman. So why doesn’t the UK?
Whatever your views on Brexit, it is undeniable that one benefit which the EU has bequeathed us is clarity in food labelling. I don’t mean the fictitious nonsense about trying to ban straight bananas (a straight lie, by the way, peddled by those who would seek to discredit the union for political purposes); what I’m referring to are the rules which help shoppers understand exactly what is in the food and drink that we consume.
Often, EU law has grown out of good ideas from individual countries, and in this field the French have frequently led the way. The concept of protecting the names of regional foodstuffs, for example, was based around the French appellation controlée system for wine.
It is thanks to this regulation that Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton cheese and Fenland celery, to name but three, are protected from fake interlopers from elsewhere (and it is high time that Cromer crabs joined that list).
Now the French have introduced a new law which will go one step further to help consumers, and although this one is controversial, it too makes a lot of sense. An amendment to that country’s agriculture bill prohibits foods largely based on non-animal products from being labelled as if they were meat.
What this means in practice is that terms such as ‘vegetable steak’, ‘vegetarian sausage’ and the particular oxymoron ‘vegan cheese’ will be banned. And a good thing too.
I have never understood why, if you have made the decision that you don’t want meat in your diet, that you would choose to eat products that have the appearance, texture and even something approaching the taste of meat.
This new regulation (which is only in France, by the way, giving the lie to Brexiteer claims that the EU stands in the way of individual member states making their own decisions) is not about banning these products; it simply aims to make their marketing more honest, removing any claim that they are in any way connected to the non-vegetarian foods they are trying to emulate.
It is high time we tackled the dissembling and plain dishonesty prevalent in our food industry. Recently I was chatting to a Norfolk producer which was planning an ‘egg-free mayonnaise’. Given that the very definition of mayonnaise is ‘an emulsion of egg yolk and oil, flavoured with vinegar or lemon juice’, the concept of an egg-free version is clearly a nonsense. Thankfully the idea was quietly dropped – although there are plenty of other ‘egg-free mayos’ already on supermarket shelves
Vegetarian activists are constantly calling for clearer labelling of meat products; they can’t have it both ways and turn a blind eye to misleading or plain wrong names given to meat-free produce.
The key point here is that such dishonest labelling is simply not necessary. Perhaps some years ago when vegetarianism was very much on the margins, food producers felt the need to dress up their meat-free products in a way which might appeal to the mainstream, carnivorous consumer. But now that meat-free eating has itself become part of that mainstream, there is simply no need to carry on with the deception.
Consumer pressure can force change, even in our notoriously powerful supermarket sector. Earlier this year the howls of derision which greeted Marks & Spencers’ extensively-packaged ‘cauliflower steaks’ – essentially two slices of cauliflower which you could have cut yourself from a 40p cauliflower from your local market, but which came with a £2 price tag – forced the retail giant to withdraw the product, which had been rather cynically marketed for ‘Veganuary’.
Perhaps a fool and his money are quickly parted, but in reality almost all of us fall prey in some way to the devious marketing tricks of our food industry. So a move which is about clarity and labelling honesty is to be welcomed – and something we should emulate here in the UK.
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