In the U.S., vegan cheesemaker Miyoko Schinner has just taken on the California Department for Food and Agriculture (CDFA) for their over-the-top dairy labelling restrictions, after her company was ordered to remove a picture of a woman hugging a cow from its website. She’s not alone in her fight, writes our economist Veronica Fil.
A number of States throughout the U.S. have already moved to pass laws banning vegan companies from using these terms. Even the State of Arkansas has cracked down on the use of the term ‘cauliflower rice’ because—buyer beware—it’s not real rice. And over in Australia, dairy advocacy groups are still seeking support to reclaim the word “milk” as their own—even though nobody cares anymore.
Unfortunately, despite overwhelming consumer support for plant based options, vegan product labelling remains contentious. But the argument is certainly getting stale, and it feels like it’s dominated by industry lobbyists who fear that they have something to lose.
WHAT’S THE ACTUAL PROBLEM?
According to meat and dairy industry stakeholders, the issue is that consumers are being misled. Apparently, many are being tricked into consuming products that are not made from animals—and it’s of detriment to their health.
I think that we can all safely say that this is a weak angle to take. Given the monumental growth of the plant based foods sector in recent years—and the fact that it’s not only being driven by consumer purchasing behaviour, but by major non-vegan manufacturers and supermarkets—the only people taking issue with vegan product labelling are those who are worried about losing market share. And a handful of boomers who simply enjoy complaining about things.
That said, from a marketing perspective it’s smart for these industries to position themselves against synthetic, plant based vegan foods with questionable nutritional value. In fact, if they’re going to be serious about saving consumers from suboptimal nutrition, they should be talking about all highly processed foods—like real chicken nuggets and hot dogs—as well.
CONSUMER EDUCATION IS KEY
Perhaps instead of arguing over semantics, we should instead be focusing on educating consumers to simply be aware of what they’re buying. Teach them how to read a label; the true meaning of those certifications; the numbers and unpronounceable terms on the ingredients panel. I trust that information far more than a product name, or a convenient stamp that tells me whether or not a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Like all foods, plant based products exist across a range of categories. There’s the rubbish that goes into fast food outlets (as delicious as it may be), and there’s the organic, healthy and clean options too. The only difference is that, unlike traditional foods, plant based products remove animals from the food supply chain.
So if the meat and dairy players are seriously concerned about social welfare and people’s nutrition, they should realise that banning the usage of certain words is not going to fix the problem. That’s not going to help people make informed choices. Because if they’re correct in their assumptions—that consumers are not intelligent enough to understand what they’re they’re putting in their bodies, and the bodies of their children and pets—then we’ve got way bigger issues.
I’d suggest that the traditionalists who are intent on protecting their words from The Vegans start embracing change. Because, as consumer preferences shift, industries that fail to adapt or innovate become redundant. And just like our eating habits evolve over time, so does language.