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‘Absolutely milking it’

Vegans could lose ‘cheese’ and ‘yoghurt’ under new Trading Standards guidelines 
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Man choosing a vegan milk from a supermarket shelf

New guidelines to be issued to trading standards officers on the labelling of plant-based alternatives to dairy products could force the relabelling of common products such as vegan cheese.

Previously trading standards officers have taken a common sense, light-touch approach to regulations on the use of dairy-derived names for plant-based foods, in line with research showing that shoppers understand their use and are not being confused or misled. 

However, documents obtained by Unearthed show that the dairy industry has been lobbying the government to adopt a far stricter application of the rules where plant-based products, already banned from describing themselves as ‘milk’ could see that treatment extended to cheese and yoghurt, even if prefaced by ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’.

A ban on ‘alternatives’?

Under the draft guidance, brands would be banned from using descriptors such as ‘yoghurt-style’ or ‘cheddar-type’, or homophones or misspellings such as ‘mylk’.

The draft suggested plant-based products should even be prohibited from saying they are ‘not milk’ – or describing themselves as ‘alternatives’ to dairy products. 

The guidance, which is still in a draft phase, is being prepared to help trading standards officers interpret and enforce laws on how dairy alternatives are described in packaging and marketing.

‘People are waking up to the damage that the meat and dairy industry is causing to the climate and the environment. That’s why so many Brits are now opting for plant-based alternatives to popular dairy products.

‘The dairy lobby is following in the footsteps of the oil majors by blocking and undermining solutions to the climate emergency to protect their bottom line. They are absolutely milking it and the government should reject these farcical new guidelines.’

Programme director at Greenpeace UK

Plant-based in the UK

The UK is one of the leading consumers of plant-based products in the world, with plant-based drinks seeing sales increase by 24% between 2020 and 2022 to £276 million. It now has a market share of 7%.

Nearly half (48%) of UK consumers drink at least one plant-based milk alternative.

‘Protection of dairy terms’

Dairy UK, a trade association that describes itself as the ‘voice of the dairy industry’, has been pushing the government for tougher guidelines for plant-based products since at least 2017.

Leading members of Dairy UK include Arla Foods, which makes Anchor and Lurpak butter, Saputo, manufacturer of Cathedral City cheese and yoghurt brand Müller.

According to notes from a Dairy UK committee meeting in July 2017, Dairy UK ‘had been tasked [by Defra] with developing a briefing paper on the issue to send to the UK’s Enforcement Focus Group in order to have an approved UK position paper clarifying the protection of dairy terms.’

The Focus Group appears to be the Food Standards Information Focus Group (FSIG), an advisory group for local authorities made up of senior trading standards officials.

They produced a draft opinion in early 2022, which recommended greater enforcement on the restrictions of terms that can be used to market plant-based food and drink so that consumers do not falsely assume ‘nutritional equivalence’ with dairy products.

The FSIG and Defra communicated over the following months, with members of the focus group saying they believe this to be ‘a policy issue’ for the government to take a position on.

Misleading consumers?

Dairy UK provided a position paper to Defra in November last year, backing the FSIG’s draft proposals and urging the government to maintain the protection of dairy terms in the Retained EU Law Bill.

Dairy UK argues that allusions to dairy will mislead consumers as to plant-based products’ nutritional profile, describing the terms used as ‘marketing malpractice’.

‘This move will make us one of the most draconian nations in regards to what we can and cannot call these sorts of products. It does not send out the message that we are a good place for businesses to innovate, manufacture and retail in this sector and it seems odd that post Brexit we want to use EU regulations to create as much restriction and red tape on business as we can after having not enforced this for ten years.

‘Consumers know what they are buying and they are not stupid, it should be left to them to make their choices in the supermarket.’

CEO of the Plant Based Food Alliance UK

If local authorities were to choose the strictest interpretations of the new guidance, this would mean taking a tougher stance than either the European Union or the US. 

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