Food Law Experts Say It’s Not Only Italy and France Who Are at Odds With the European Commission

Previously our Food Law experts at Advanced Food Regulation (AFR) have reported on the adversarial loggerheads being butted between the French and Italian governments and the European Commission when it comes to those two country’s proposed bans on the use of “traditional” terminology in respect of plant-based alternatives. However, it may well be that the UK, via non-governmental advisory group, the Food Standards & Information Focus Group (FSIFG), is about to join the same battle and rail against the position expressed by the Commission – that the use of such terminology is permissible and not misleading or confusing to the consumer.

We understand that Trading Standards officials are potentially on the brink of issuing new guidance, including a ban on the use of words and phrases like “m*lk”, “cheeze” and “not milk” on labels. The document says plant-based brands should not use homophones, asterisked characters or other wordplay. Words like “whole” are also outlawed. The latest version of the guidance, dated January 2024, has not been watered down despite the concerns raised by the plant-based food industry.

One may have thought that this was a regressive step at a time when other government bodies are suggesting that we should be encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices. One consequence is that brands and retailers will have to rename their plant-based products, causing additional increased costs, which will be passed to the consumer in one way or another, in an industry that is already doing its best during the cost of living crisis.

As with many ill-thought-out proposals there are somewhat absurd unintended consequences and it should not be thought that the potential ban would only affect “new” products because it would also impact on what is now a British staple in fridges across the country (and has been for 35 years) – I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

The so-called “draft opinion” is written by the Food Standards and Information Focus Group (FSIFG), a leading group of trading standards officers, though enforcement of the law on dairy labelling and marketing standards lies with local authorities and the trading standards officers acting on their behalf. The FSIFG explains: “Technological innovation is leading to the construction of products offered as alternatives to conventional foods of animal origin. It is important that products are clearly distinguished, understood and nutritional difference are not confused.”

If the guidance is rubber-stamped when the FSIFG’s business expert group next meets, it will be shared with trading standards officers across the country.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “This is a draft opinion from a group who are independent of government. There are no plans to change existing legislation in this area.”

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