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At the recent All China Leather Exhibition (ACLE) in Shanghai a speaker at the Shanghai Shake-Up Conference argued that the time had come for the leather industry to wake up to reality and to work alongside some of the new competitive materials, while not being too precious about the term “leather”.
While there was quite a lot of sympathy with this point of view most of our industry remain opposed to what they see as the deliberate confusing of the consumers. Some claims seem intentionally aimed to prevent consumers from knowing what they are actually buying, and others pass off inferior performing materials as leather. More often than not, such materials fail much sooner than expected damaging the image of leather, and only occasionally does the buyer get to learn the truth when they take the item to be repaired by an expert (and discover no repair is possible).
Something similar has been going on in the meat industry, where earlier this year in the U.S., The National Farmers Union backed a petition by the U.S. Cattlemen's Association calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bar the term "meat" being used for substitute products.
Roger Johnson, President of the NFU, was quoted* saying, “we believe all food products should be clearly labelled in a manner that helps consumers make informed decisions and allows producers to differentiate their products." Talking about lab grown materials based on animal cells (so not vegan) he said items "not derived from animals born, raised, and harvested in a traditional manner.... should not be permitted to be marketed as 'meat’”.
They objected, along with the Cattlemen’s Association to terms like "in vitro meat”, "bio meat," "clean meat" or "cultured meat” and any such improper use of the term meat or beef.
The State of Missouri accepted these arguments and was the first to put a tight definition of meat into the statute book. The law forbids "misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry” and targets substitutes made from either animal cells or plant material. Other states are expected to follow, but it is not a clear path. The company that sells a tofu-based material, Tofurk, has filed an injunction to prevent enforcement of the statute. It says no one has said that anybody has been confused by the term “plant-based meats” and that preventing manufacturers from using the word is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Their motivation appears to be to oppose any animal-based foods.
In the leather industry we have a similar situation with European tanners having argued almost identically with the EU for a clearer definition. They lost the first round but, as far as I know, are still fighting. The 1960s leather law in Brazil prevents any misuse of the term leather and the CICB have an outstanding record in recent years of enforcing it with staff on the road inspecting retailers and automobile forecourts. German tanners have battled against the misuse of the term “bonded leather” and always win, although they make it very clear they have no objection to the material when clearly labelled as they are happy to provide the raw material. Similarly, France is strict about the adjectives that can be applied to leather.
Certainly, the balance of leather industry opinion remains strongly in favour of a precise definition of leather and wants to avoid it becoming an umbrella term like “textile” for a miscellany of materials from mushrooms to amoeba. Nevertheless, with proper nomenclature linkages with tanneries do make sense be it as a route to use certain tannery by-products, provide improving technology or create a wider product mix for marketing.
Dr Mike Redwood
September 5, 2018
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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