Some of this careless language soon slips into communications for consumers with the plan to mislead them into thinking they are buying a bargain, or to purchase something different from their original intention. For a while this was thought only to be clever and the consumer to be foolish, but in certain areas mistakes were made which were costly for the consumer to rectify, or, with products like food, could be dangerous to health.

So, around the world we have laws and regulations often termed “trade descriptions” where companies can be penalised or barred from trading if they make false statements about their products. Advertisements are usually initially controlled by trade bodies. Occasionally, governments pass specific legislation to ensure that items are correctly defined; they are cautious about doing so since such laws can be costly to police and to enforce.

This is where we sit with leather. The scientific ISO definition would benefit from a minor upgrade, but it is still adequate and has not changed very much in 400 years. In the 1960s, Brazil legislated to support the precise term and the local leather industry has invested to successfully enforce this, demonstrating what can be done. In 2020, the Italian law was also updated, and we hope they will enforce it, but generally speaking, around the world leather associations have been slow off the mark in this area. The leather industry chose not to fight for the term “leather” since until recently all hides and skins were turned into leather and it felt like an unnecessary cost. While understandable, this slip in the last few decades left a gap for large numbers of materials calling themselves “synthetic leather” to become fully established, which means the battle now has become more of an uphill struggle.

The vote in the EU Parliament came about through Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, and despite a lot of talk about the meat lobby being behind this, there has been little sign of them. France is supportive and has already passed regulations stopping the use of the name “veggie-burger”, but the main proposer appears to have been the European Farmers’ Trade body Copa-Cogeca, who were quoted as saying that “some marketing agencies are using this to deliberately confuse consumers … and this is cultural hijacking.”

On hearing of the proposal to limit the use of burger to “meat only”, a group of about a dozen EU NGOs, including The Vegan Society, Eurogroup for Animals and Greenpeace created a counter campaign asking MEPs to oppose any ban on “meatish” or “dairyish” terms for plant-based products.

In the end ,the Parliament left in place the control on “milk” which was already legislated, but turned down any protection for the term “burger”, permitting the “veggie burger” to continue.

Martin Cohen, the author of I Think Therefore I Eat wrote about the outcome in The Conversation. He disputes the argument that the term “veggie burger” is not confusing, with market research showing deep uncertainty about the nature of the ingredients in these non-meat “meats”. Opposing the comments of the NGOs, he says there remains a clear “consumer interest in clarity and the avoidance of ambiguity” which is surely not too much to ask in a world where an understanding of science and an ability to master the facts is increasingly important.

His particular concern is that instead of this being a case of a “big meat” lobby, it is in fact being shaped by other “powerful players in society, including multinational food companies, without us even realising it. There’s a worthy argument for protecting consumers from businesses twisting terms to create markets for their products. Language, and decisions about it, should belong to everyone, not just an elite.”

The actual winners from being able to use “veggie burger” here are billionaire investors in plant-based food products and animal rights campaigners like Gunhild Stordalen, the founder of EAT, who care less about the nutrition of the highly processed content in these new articles than they do about stopping us eating animals.

A cow should be a cow, meat should be meat and leather should only be leather and the livestock, meat, dairy and leather sectors all need to keep fighting for honest science and clear descriptions.

Mike Redwood
November 4, 2020

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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