Plant-based fish: MEPs demand more transparency on these new products

Meeting in the Fisheries Committee at the European Parliament on Wednesday November 29, MEPs asked the European Commission to legislate on plant-based alternatives to fishery products, accused of misleading consumers.

MEPs from the Fisheries Committee (PECH) call on the European Commission to ensure more transparency regarding plant products imitating seafood.

These increasingly consumed products are not presented correctly to consumers, and fuel a myth. No, fish is not a vegetable! », calls out MEP Izaskun Bilbao Barandica (Renew), at the origin of a public meeting at the European Parliament on Wednesday 29 November.

Plant-based alternatives to animal products have been established on the market in recent years thanks to a growing demand for substitute proteins from consumers, whether for ethical, nutritional or environmental reasons.

If the ” vegetable steak “, and others ” vegan sausages » already fill the shelves of supermarkets, fish and other plant-based seafood are still quite rare.

But awareness of the problems of overfishing and the progressive recognition of the suffering of marine animals are generating new demand.

For Rafael Pinto, of the European Vegetarian Union, an NGO supporting vegetarianism, this still nascent market has grown by 326% in Europe between 2020 and 2022 and by 10,700% in Spain.

There is an explosion of these products, particularly in the United States. However, consumers do not see clearly, most have difficulty finding their way through the labeling”warns Yobana Bermudez, President of the European Federation of National Organizations of Fish Importers and Exporters (CEP).

According to an American study by the Food Industry Association, 54% of consumers have a clear idea of ​​what they are buying, and 46% of them face difficulties.

Unclear legal framework

France and Spain are trying to impose laws prohibiting plant foodstuffs from using a name usually used to designate animal products.

As evidenced by the legal battle that France is waging to prohibit the marketing of “ vegetable steak », this having been recorded by decree in 2022 before being suspended by the Council of State. This summer, the highest court even referred the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to interpret European regulations on labeling.

The same CJEU issued a decision in 2017 making vegetable milk – as well as butter and yogurt – illegal and according to which only products containing “ TRUE » milk could be marketed.

Despite everything, according to Yobana Bermudez, “ there is a legal vacuum » concerning the labeling and names of this type of food. “ Processed products enjoy many advantages over other products subject to standards “, she continues.

This is even more true for seafood products.

The European regulation concerning information on foodstuffs requires the name of the food to be displayed on the label, and the text on the Common Organization of the Markets (CMO) prohibits names that are misleading for the consumer.

However, as recalled by the Commission representative, Frangiscos Nikolian (DG MARE), products of plant origin are not covered by the CMO, apart from those based on algae.

Labeling, location

We are deceiving the consumer,” explains MEP Rosanna Conte (ID), taking as an example the flagship product of the Nestlé group, a “ tuna » 100% plant-based. If the “Vuna” (referring to tuna) displays a photo of prepared tuna and announces a “ taste similar to tuna » , the company plays on association through image.

“Animal products have a specific nutritional value, tuna cannot refer to a vegetable preparation”, continues the Italian MEP, asking like many of her colleagues for clearer labeling so that no confusion arises.

“I have nothing against plant-based products, but consumers must be aware of their choice, and be informed precisely of what they are buying”adds Isabel Carvalhais (S&D).

MEPs also spoke of the need not to present these products on the same shelves as imitation products.

More generally, elected officials fear that plant-based “fish” will compete with the fishing sector and erode consumer confidence in the authenticity of seafood products. This could, they say, threaten the economic and environmental sustainability of the fishing sector.

Sustainable product?

For Isabel Carvalhais, this raises another problem: the consumer often thinks that a vegan product will be more sustainable and healthier. The industry has noticed this new trend and has understood the vein for several years. While these products are highly processed and do not reduce the carbon footprint”.

Arguments that Rafael Pinto, of the European Vegetarian Union, contests, mentioning a WWF study in Switzerland which shows that the carbon footprint of a fish stick is 3.6 times greater than its vegetable copy. Just as the latter would be healthier from a nutritional point of view.

“The key factor is indeed not to mislead the consumer, but he is capable of making the difference. You just need to know that it’s 100% plant-based or vegan”, he explains. According to him, the legislation is sufficient and changing it would cause even more confusion.

The Fisheries Committee has repeatedly stressed the importance of food safety. However, these products are an opportunity for Rafael Pinto, they provide the opportunity to diversify the sector and create “green jobs”.

The representative of the European Commission, Frangiscos Nikolian, in turn admitted that there was a lack of clear labeling and that it was necessary to reorient advertising From farm to fork – encouraging vegetable proteins – to raise consumer awareness .

While specialists and MEPs have pointed out the need for specific legislation, the Commission responds that “the labeling of products of plant origin is not specific to these products, we must find a more global solution”.

“We support plant-based farm-to-table ambitions, but we also support fish. Each product has its own advantages »he concluded, promising to work on the subject before a possible proposal from the European Commission on the subject.

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