Italy wants to censor plant-based products, but we won’t have it!

Claudio Pomo
Development manager

A bill that aims to censor plant-based products has been presented in Italy, but the various associations are calling for parliamentary debate. If approved, producers of plant-based alternatives would no longer be able to use terms such as “cutlets,” “frankfurter,” “sausages,” or “steaks” on the label.

34 European animal welfare, environmental and civil society organisations, representing consumers and companies involved in the production of plant-based proteins, have signed a letter addressed to the Committee on Agriculture and parliamentary groups asking for a debate on the proposed law in order to highlight all the criticisms. We put forward the letter, which is supported also by the European Alliance for Plant-based Foods.

Specifically, the bill presented to the Committee on Agriculture would prohibit producers of plant-based alternatives from making use of denominations typical of meat products. A similar law, as you will remember, was already debated and rejected by the European Union in 2020, but this time the underlying reason has changed: this proposal would not defend the interests of consumers who might allegedly be fooled by misleading product names, it would instead be intended to protect livestock production. Yes, you understood that correctly. In fact, Article 1 of the bill states that its explicit aim is to ‘protect the national livestock heritage’.

Unfortunately, it is not only Italy that is under attack from the livestock lobby: similar laws have been proposed in France and the Czech Republic. Although we are not surprised that the livestock industry feels threatened by the unstoppable rise of plant-based alternatives, we are taking action because we feel that this attempt at censorship is very serious. Also because according to a recent survey by Beuc (the European Consumer Organization), 88% of Italians are in favour of or do not consider it problematic for these terms to also be used for plant-based alternatives.

The bill point by point: the nutritional aspect

According to the proposal, the deception behind the labelling of plant-based products would not lie so much in the fact that the consumer is not capable of distinguishing a vegan product from a meat-based one, as claimed by the ‘burger ban’ in Europe, but rather that those who buy these products would be led to think that it has the same nutritional qualities as the corresponding meat-based product.

This analysis doesn’t stand up because consumers are not that naive and basically do not buy one product in order to obtain the same nutritional qualities as another. In addition, even among products with similar names of animal origin there is great variation in terms of nutritional values: take cured and cooked ham, for example, or a chicken or pork sausage.

Again according to the bill, plant-based products that ‘are ground, mixed and enriched with flavourings and thickeners have nothing to do, from a nutritional point of view, with the real products of animal husbandry: the vitamins, proteins, mineral salts (and often also overall caloric intake) are far removed from those of animal husbandry products’. In fact, contrary to what the authors of the proposal would like to imply, the nutritional values of a plant-based product are much better because they contain less fat, more fibre, zero cholesterol, potential bacteria or traces of antibiotics.

The issue of aromas and Made in Italy

Another very controversial point refers to ‘the use of numerous additives, flavourings and auxiliaries essential to give consistency and flavour to reconstituted plant-based products; substances that are used legitimately, but which should not be consumed in excess’. A superfluous criticism given that on the labels of many meat products, such as sausages, you also see the presence of additives and flavourings.

The proposal then refers to an ill-defined ‘synthetic food’, which ‘represents a dangerous means for destroying any link with natural food and with the various territories, erasing any cultural distinctions that have often been around for centuries’. But plant-based proteins that constitute the basis of many vegan alternatives come from legumes, products that are neither synthetic nor artificial and that absolutely form part of our culinary tradition.

Finally, the proposal calls for the ‘fair recognition and respect for the work of our companies’. A short-sighted vision that does not consider how many vegan companies are also Italian and due to this law will suffer serious economic damage, due to the need to invest large sums in research, marketing and the modification of all packaging and communication.

We won’t stand by and watch this happen

Supporting the livestock sector at the expense of the plant-based transition not only goes against citizens’ interest, but also the very values promoted by the European Union. The European Union has committed to promoting a more sustainable diet by means of its Farm to Fork strategy, because this sector and in particular meat production is among the most polluting globally. Italy must not and cannot afford to row against the tide.

It is clear from various surveys that Italian consumers, many of whom are driven by environmental or ethical reasons, are introducing more and more plant-based foods into their diet. This bill is an attempt to slow down the growth of this market and to derail the EU’s plans for a sustainable food system. We won’t stand by and watch!