Why the veggie burger ban misunderstands how language works

Ella Williams on the EU proposal to ban familiar words for plant-based products

Ella Williams
23rd October 2020
Hold it right there with your oat milk and your veggie burgers. This week, the EU parliament will vote on a proposal that will limit words like “burger”, “sausage” “steak” and “escalope” to only products that contain animal meat. Another proposal goes further, calling for a ban of any terms along the lines of “yogurt-style”, “cheese-like” or “creamy” for dairy-free products. The proposals have been touted as calls for clarity- the prospect of a vegan sausage is apparently too much for consumers to handle. Instead, almond juice and vegetable disks would now line the supermarket aisles to avoid “confusion”.

Delicious "vegetable disc" from Newcastle-based burger restaurant Fat Hippo. Source: @fathippofood on Instagram

Taken in as good a faith as I can muster, this still seems to miss a pretty fundamental point about how language works. The very first thing that was hammered into us from the start of my linguistics degree is that language is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is: words change as the world does. And our world is changing. We are increasingly preoccupied with the environmental impact of our food choices. We are finally starting to include non-human animals into our circle of moral consideration. As such, words like “burger”, “sausage” and “milk” have come to refer to a taste and texture, or to the particular way in which we use and enjoy these foods. “Burger” is defined as a flat patty, typically enjoyed in a bun with lots of ketchup. “Milk” is an opaque and dare-I-say creamy emulsion of fat in liquid (if you must know) and it tends to taste good on cereal or in tea. The familiar taste of these foods can now be made using a whole variety of ingredients. They do not necessarily refer to the unsustainable and cruel ways they have traditionally been sourced, and that we are growing out of as a society. 

The very first thing that was hammered into us from the start of my linguistics degree is that language is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is: words change as the world does.

Some might move onto arguing for the legislation on the grounds of health concerns. A vegetarian steak or a dairy-free milk might not fulfil the same nutrient profile as their animal-based counterparts, they say. To label them using the same words would be misleading. Even if this were true, food names have never been the primary source of information on a product’s nutrition. There’s another part of the packaging for that, and it’s called the “nutrition label”. As it happens, the claim is not true anyway. The age-old idea that dairy is a vital food group to provide calcium and bone strength has been refuted time and again as government messaging to protect the dairy industry after a fall in demand after World War Two. Most mock meats and vegetarian protein sources like tofu, soya and lentils are filled with nutrients typically attributed to animal-meat like iron, zinc, magnesium. The world's largest organisation of nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, have called an entirely plant-based diet suitable for "all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

As for the infamous vitamin B12, the one nutrient accepted as not being naturally available from a plant based diet, this vitamin is made by bacteria in the soil and is less available today due to modern food sanitisation. For this reason, animals raised for food tend to be supplemented with vitamin B12 anyway. France accounts for 80 per cent of world production of cyanocobalamin (the most common and widely produced form of B12 supplement) producing more than 10 tons per year. More than half, 55% of sales of this B12 is for animal feed, while the remaining 45 per cent is for humans (Kaesler, 2005). Vegans taking a supplement or getting their B12 through fortified foods just cut out the middle man (or cow). 

Marketing like “veggie burger” or “vegan sausage” is about as deceptive to a meat eater as “meat-packed falafel” or “carnivorous cucumber” would be to a vegan.

Chocolate oat-juice-shake with whipped... something from Heaton-based cafe Shoe Tree. Source: @shoetreecafe on Instagram

So, these alternatives broadly taste the same, look the same and fulfil the same nutrient needs. To be misled into buying a burger sourced from plants doesn’t sound all that bad… But all this becomes irrelevant when we recognise that the words aren’t misleading in the first place. Marketing like “veggie burger” or “vegan sausage” is about as deceptive to a meat eater as “meat-packed falafel” or “carnivorous cucumber” would be to a vegan. As it happens, we have been using these words for plant-based products for decades anyway: coconut milk and peanut butter have never caused a problem. The difference now is that they are becoming more widely-used as the our societal outlook shifts. Those with a vested interest in the animal agriculture industry are attempting to halt this shift through the means language, but they’ve got it the wrong way around. The change is already happening. Whether it’s almond milk or almond juice or veggie burger or veggie disc, it is the future. 

When we look at the etymology of a word we can see its changing meaning over time, its history and how it came to mean what it means today. "Avocado" literally means testicle. Today's puddings are not all wrapped up in a sheep stomach. No one is cross that dinky mince pies no longer contain beef. Eventually, the etymology of our words for "pork" and "lamb", "sausages" and "burgers" will be remnants of outdated practices that once involved animals with food. But the world will have changed and words will follow, as they always do. "Burger" will mean something kinder, better for the planet and equally as nice in a bun with chips.

Featured Image: pxfuel

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