The French seek to limit the names of plant-based products - the issue is headed to the EU Court of Justice


The push that began a few years ago to limit the labeling of plant-based alternatives to meaty names such as "steaks", "sausages", "burgers" and the like has reached a new stage. In July, the administrative court of the highest instance of France appealed to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in a case concerning the labeling of plant-based food products established in France. The case was initiated by the non-governmental organizations Association Végétarienne de France (French Vegetarian Association), EVU - European Vegetarian Union (European Vegetarian Society) and the company Beyond Meat.

Meda Šermukšnė, head of the organization "Gyvi gali", which is one of the 46 EVU members, says that attempts to introduce such restrictions are redundant and misleading to users. "Ellex Valiūnas" law firm attorney, Vilnius University Faculty of Law doc. Dr. According to Donatas Murauskas, this appeal by the French court to the Court of Justice of the European Union will determine significant interpretations of EU law on the issues of regulation of product labeling, which is complicated and sensitive to food suppliers. 

After the unachieved ban, initiatives were taken at the EU level in individual countries

Back in 2020, the European Parliament rejected a proposal by the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development to restrict the use of "meat" names for plant-based alternatives. Failing to achieve ban at the EU level, similar initiatives were taken in Italy and France. In the latter, the ban was adopted in 2022 by a decree of the Minister of Agriculture, but its validity was finally temporarily suspended in a case initiated by the Council of State (French: Conseil d'Etat), which is the highest administrative court in France. 

The essence of the controversial decree of the French minister is to limit the names of plant-based food products that are traditionally associated with products of animal origin. However, the applicants in the case in the State Council raise the question of the legality of the Minister's decree, based on the 2011 October 25 European Parliament and Council Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 (Regulation) by Article 38. One of its provisions is that, in the area of issues specifically harmonized by the Regulation, EU member states cannot take decisions or continue to apply them at the national level, unless this is permitted by Union law and such decisions do not create obstacles to the free movement of goods, including discrimination of food products from other member states.

In order to find out whether the decree of the French Minister does not violate the aforementioned provision of the Regulation, the French Council of State turned to the CJEU. Thus, taking into account the complex legal regulation of food labeling in the context of the emergence of new food products, the restrictions provided for in the Ministerial Decree will be evaluated from the point of view of EU law.

The CJEU's involvement may dictate how similar bans are regulated in the future

Attorney at "Ellex Valiūnas" law firm, Vilnius University Faculty of Law, Assoc. Dr. Donatas Murauskas comments that this case will reveal whether the French Minister of Agriculture properly implemented his powers. 

"Faced with the increasing importance of new alternative food products, it is natural for traditional food producers to limit the opportunities of new products to compete in the market. Although Regulation No. 1169/2011 is a central legal act on food labeling issues, it does not in itself negate the possibility of responding to the public and consumer's point of view with specific regulation, as long as it does not contradict the provisions of this regulation. So, the question in the CJEU case is essentially about whether the French Minister of Agriculture "entered" the scope of Regulation no. 1169/2011 regulatory area, whether he nevertheless implemented his powers properly", says Dr. D. Murauskas

In addition, according to the interviewee, the initiated case at the ECJ will provide more clarity in the sensitive area of food product labeling in individual EU countries. "The content of the provisions of the aforementioned regulation is detailed in specific situations. It is not the first time that the French Council of State has had questions about the possibility of provisions of national law, taking into account Article 38 of this regulation. the provisions of paragraph 1. Having recognized in the case that the issues regulated by the ministerial decree fall within the "specifically harmonized issue" referred to in the regulation, the CJEU will have to clarify, according to the State Council's question, to what extent the requirements for food products of plant origin regarding the association of names with products of animal origin can be established in national law and whether it is permissible to establish national regulations sanctions for non-compliance with such requirements", emphasizes lawyer dr. Donatas Murauskas.

Meanwhile, M. Šermukšnė, head of the "Gyvi gali" organization, says that she is surprised that this is being discussed at all, and does not expect any other possible outcome than the suspension of such and similar bans in the European Union. 

"Do you remember the case of peanut butter producers "Sviestas svietusotas" in Lithuania, when they tried to ban them from using such a brand? If we don't want more of these and similar curiosities in Europe, we have to hope that the CJEU trusts consumers' ability to understand what products are made of when they are labeled plant-based. Research shows that consumers are not misled. On the contrary, we can see from their experience and our own experience that people do not understand where to look for the herbal alternatives they want, when producers or dealers have to use various words to name them", says M. Šermukšnė. 

The purpose of bans is to protect traditional producers by limiting competition from alternative proteins?

According to plant-based food consumers and producers, such bans are an attempt to slow down the growing popularity of plant-based food and oppose the development of a more sustainable food system, which is one of the main priorities of the European Union. Meda Šermukšnė, head of the non-governmental organization "Gyvi gali", criticizes the proposal, stating that such prohibitions put consumers in an absurd position, as if they are unable to distinguish meat products from vegetable products, even when this is clearly indicated on the packaging. 

"Claims that dairy or meat names for alternative protein products mislead consumers are absurd to say the least. Proponents of the bans believe that people are unable to distinguish that they are buying plant-based products when they are labeled as soy sausages, pea roasts and the like. When buying such products, what do consumers expect them to be made of? People who buy such products know exactly what they are buying and have good reasons to choose such products over animal products. It seems that the growing market is causing problems for representatives of the livestock sector, which is why they resort to the strangest measures to stop it," says M. Šermukšnė. 

According to M. Šermukšnė, after noticing that the argument of misleading consumers turned out to be too weak, representatives of the livestock sector began to rely on claims about nutritional value. "Consumers are looking for products that don't compromise on taste, health, environment or ethics, but are similar to their regular products. They want products without animal ingredients. The only logical way to help consumers is not to mislead them with innovations that alternative protein manufacturers would be forced to create. If we want to solve the worsening environmental problems, it is important to promote the growth of the alternative protein market, and not to stop it by absurd regulation of names", says the head of the "Gyvi gali" organization. 

The hearing of the case in the CJEU can take about 1-2 years.

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