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A meaty debate: traditional vs lab-grown alternatives

13 August 2021. Published by Ben Mark, Partner and Noonie Holmes, Trainee Solicitor

The number of vegans and vegetarians in the UK has skyrocketed in recent years and there are an increasing number of 'flexitarians' aiming to reduce their meat intake for health and environmental reasons. Barclays predicts the meat-alternatives market could be worth £140bn by 2029, which is equivalent to 10% of the global meat industry. This market includes both plant-based foods and newer lab-grown meats.

These newer lab-grown meats are made from cultured animal cells so do not require the breeding and slaughter of livestock but use a by-product of cattle slaughter (foetal bovine serum) - some manufacturers are working towards plant-based alternatives.

Retailers or manufacturers that are considering entering into the meat-alternative market will inevitably encounter some teething problems as they try and navigate this market.  Some of which may come with legal exposure, for example:

1. Product claims

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have made it clear that advertising should always be clear about what a product is so as not to mislead consumers.  They have released specific guidance on advertising vegan and vegetarian products (including meat-alternatives), and were clear that retailers need to be careful not to overstate.

For example, the decision of the ASA in April last year against Burger King's meat-free "Impossible Whopper" highlights this.  During Veganuary, Burger King used claims such as "plant-based burger" and "100% WHOPPER.  NO BEEF" along with a green palette.  The ASA considered consumers would understand the advert to be claiming that these burgers were suitable for vegans and vegetarians – which was not the case as the burger contained egg mayonnaise. 

Given the current need to use a by-product of cattle slaughter in lab-grown meat, there is likely to be strong backlash and a high risk of complaints against adverts that claim or imply (i.e. using colour, imagery and palettes that are associated with a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle) lab-grown meat is suitable for vegetarians or vegans so care should be taken.

 

2. Meat-related descriptors

In 2018, France passed legislation that prohibited products that are largely based on non-animal ingredients from being labelled like a meat product – e.g. "vegetable steak" – on the basis that this was misleading to consumers.  However, in 2020 the EU decided that meat-related descriptors were fine – but words such as "dairy", "butter", "cream imitation" and "yogurt-style" were not to be used on non-dairy market.

The dairy alternative market is well-established, and these limitations from the EU have followed significant pressure from the dairy industry.  It will be interesting to see whether there will be public/industry backlash for retailers using meat related descriptors for meat alternative products (despite being legally allowed to do so for now).

There may also be a marketing opportunity for retailers to follow in the footsteps of brands in the dairy alternative market, like Oatly – who launched a high profile (and controversial) "It's like milk but made for humans" campaign for its oat-based dairy alternative.  Despite significant backlash (it was even banned in Sweden for being misleading), Oatly have now trademarked this at the EUIPO and continue to use this campaign to large success.

 

3. Regulating the meat market

It is also clear that the meat-alternative market will be highly regulated (both in terms of manufacture and supply) – and retailers will need to consider the relevant regulations in their territory.  For example:

  • In December 2020, Singapore's food regulatory agency became the first in the world to approve a cultured meat product: US company, Eat Just's, cultured 'chicken bite'. It was considered a 'novel food' by the agency, and rigorous testing showed that it met the same standards as poultry meat and had a lower bacteria content than traditional chicken.
  • In the US, the Food and Drug Administration will oversee the production of lab-grown meat jointly with the Department for Agriculture, a decision which highlights the confusion surrounding how cultured meats should be treated by regulators.
  • The UK's Food Standards Agency will consider lab-grown meat a 'novel food' in line with current regulatory standards (please see, here). 

Any manufacture and supply will therefore need to be in accordance with the relevant regulation.  Retailers would be well advised to include quality standards and obligations to comply with the regulatory regime(s) (with sufficient flexibility to take into account any change in the regulatory landscape) in their supply and/or manufacture agreements, so as to mitigate risk arising from these processes.

 

For more blogs focused on food and drink, please see RPC's Food & Drink perspectives page.