Calling veggie burgers names is pointless

It pains me to say it, but Brexiters have a couple of good arguments. The EU has a propensity for baffling rules. It also wastes billions on harmful farm subsidies. If you thought Brexit might shake the EU of these bad habits, this week was sobering. 

On Friday a sizeable number of MEPs voted to ban the words “burger” and “sausage” being used for vegetarian products. Their plan was defeated, but it was a serious idea, which shows that, while scientists and even supermarkets say we should eat less meat, politicians are yet to catch up.

The implication was clear: you shouldn’t be able to order a beefless burger (even though Linda McCartney started selling them nearly 30 years ago) or a meat-free sausage (even though the word sausage originally just meant seasoned with salt). One argument was that meat-free burgers violate cultural traditions. Another was they confuse consumers about their nutritional benefits. It’s always interesting to receive a transparency lesson from the industry that surreptitiously force-fed much of Britain horsemeat.

What next? Would we have to rename hot dogs? Are you telling me that the pigs are not actually in blankets? I always order a Bloody Mary for a top-up of plasma — am I a victim of mis-selling?

As a vegan, I’m as keen as anyone to know if a product contains animal parts. The confusing products are the meat-free ones, like Jelly Babies and Doom Bar ale, which surprisingly contain pork or beef gelatin and fish bladders respectively. With a few exceptions, vegan foods are clear what they are. That didn’t stop the European Court of Justice ruling in 2017 that non-dairy products can’t be described as milk and cheese, even with the preface tofu. It was a silly, pointless decision. When I go to a café, I don’t ask for a flat white with oat drink. I’d be looked at strangely if I did.

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Names evolve. Scooters used to be light motorcycles, now they’re also things you stand on. If we’re going to bring the law into it, we should at least make sure it’s serving our social priorities. Europeans need to eat less animal products for environmental reasons. Would banning the term veggie burger help that? No.

What would help is for EU farm subsidies to be linked to protecting nature, rather than the number of hectares farmed. Livestock and pesticides are major sources of greenhouse gases. Intensive farming “remains a main cause of biodiversity loss”, says the European Court of Auditors. Populations of farmland birds and grassland butterflies have fallen by more than 30 per cent since 1990. 

Sadly, while they voted on what I can call my burger, MEPs also failed to reform the common agricultural policy. The new CAP mainly still links subsidies to how much land you farm, not how you farm it. To adapt a phrase, I can’t believe it’s not better. If we’re serious about meeting climate change and biodiversity targets, every big government policy should be judged against them.

Farmers are a powerful lobby group. This is how the legislative sausage gets made. But change is coming. In 2014 in the US, Hellmann’s sued over an egg-free mayonnaise called Just Mayo that it claimed was “stealing market share”. Mayo, Hellmann’s argued, could only be “a product that contains eggs”. The case settled. Hellmann’s now sells its own egg-free mayo. It’s delicious. 

The EU should be making it easier for farmers to stop producing animal products and for people to stop eating those products. Former meat-eaters want to eat meatless burgers and egg-free mayo for the same reason that designated drivers want to drink alcohol-free beer. Alcohol-free beer is beer, oat milk is milk, bean burgers are burgers — and none of it is a big deal. MEPs’ cultural identities will survive the rise of meatless food. They should worry more about whether their political reputations will.

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