From the Trade Descriptions Act to the Consumer Protection Act, myriad laws and labelling regulations protect us from food that’s sold fraudulently or misdescribed. Contravene these laws and you can be prosecuted. In 2017 a restaurant in Wales was ordered to pay in excess of £7,000 for false description on its menus, website, and social media. Its menu read, ‘Wye salmon’, implying that the fish was wild and locally caught, when in fact it had been sourced from various fish farms.
Crucial though the distinction between wild and farmed fish is, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the liberties that caterers and food manufacturers take these days when they market vegetarian and vegan products. They have insinuated vegan cheese, milk and mayonnaise, and vegetarian chicken into our food terminology, largely unchallenged. Such couplings should not stand side by side. And why, given that it is illegal for a restaurateur to serve customers beef when they think it’s lamb, should passing off a mélange of pea protein isolate, starch, gum, and additives as meat or fish be any different?
I have yet to taste a fake plant food that remotely resembles the real food it’s copying, and on this ground alone, I find them misleading. But why do we allow such rampant misrepresentation? I understand that some vegans and vegetarians who were brought up as omnivores miss the sensory properties of animal foods. They may crave a crisp rasher of bacon or a chargrilled burger, so companies have devised novel ‘plant-based’ substitutes that act as doppelgängers, ‘analogue products’ designed to ape the characteristics of genuine animal foods. Fair enough.
But the wholesale adoption of the lexicon of accepted livestock food terms bugs me. Companies exploit the qualities associated exploit the qualities associated with animal foods to market products that don’t contain any. That’s wilful fakery if you ask me. Yet lots of people who reject animal foods appear happy to go along with this misrepresentation.
In the US, over a dozen states have introduced laws that make it illegal to use the word ‘meat’ to describe burgers and sausages that are created from plant-based ingredients, or ‘grown’ in labs. To stay on the right side of labelling law in the UK, purveyors of packaged vegan and vegetarian products use terms such as ‘cheeze’, ‘fishless fillets’, ‘riblets’, and ‘soya mince’.
London has seen the opening of a vegan cheesemonger called La Fauxmagerie, and fake meat brand The Vegetarian Butcher is an example of cognitive dissonance if ever there was one. Meanwhile, in restaurants, pubs, and cafés, there seems to be a total linguistic free-for-all on menus where vegan and vegetarian imitations of animal foods are concerned.
Of course, new words and meanings are added to our dictionary all the time to reflect modern life. There has always been a bit of fudging when it comes to food. We speak of damson ‘cheese’ and coconut milk, and I don’t see cheesemakers or dairy farmers having a strop over that. But when it comes to accurately describing the new wave of highly processed plant foods that have hit our shelves, I’d say that our food labelling and description laws have been tested and found lacking.
Surely makers of these new food compositions should describe their content in honest, clear terms without making any reference to animal foods? I’m all for tightening the regulations to deal with this, and if that means referring to ‘squeezed liquid coconut’, I can live with that.
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What do you think of plant-based 'meat' products? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.