How the animal agriculture industry uses language for protection

According to Ipsos Mori polls, the number of UK vegans quadrupled between 2015 and 2019. A key driver of this trend is the massive growth in the market for plant-based alternatives to meat and animal products - this market is predicted to more than double to a whopping $160bn by 2030 in the US alone. So, how is veganism affecting the meat industry?

Plant-based alternatives to meat seek to imitate and replace animal products that are often a major constituent of particular dishes. Their purpose is to reduce the demand for meat, dairy, eggs, and fish by substituting them with a close analogue - one which is made entirely from plants. People in the animal agriculture industry know and understand this, and often interpret the rise of the plant-based market as a palpable threat to their slice of the pie.

As a result, the animal industry has taken certain steps to protect its interests - however, none of these steps has involved reducing slaughter or scaling back production. Instead, animal industries often employ new marketing campaigns in a rash, last-ditch attempt at retaining their market share.

One example of this came in January 2022, when Dairy UK and the ADHB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) teamed up to deliver their “We Eat Balanced” campaign. On the surface, this campaign was designed to reignite the nation’s passion for British farming, British meat, and British dairy products. Under the surface, however, this campaign was actually a timed, calculated attack by Big Agriculture on the popular Veganuary movement, which had been gaining ground every January since its inception in 2014.

In an attempt to drive home the benefits of eating animals, the “We Eat Balanced” campaign placed special importance on the inability of “foods of plant origin” to adequately provide naturally occurring vitamin B12 and iron. It is therefore clear that the objective of this campaign involved generating not only renewed interest in meat and dairy, but also public mistrust in the nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet. The animal agriculture industry, with the backing of larger bureaucratic bodies such as the ADHB, is actively engaging in both defensive and offensive manoeuvres to protect its interests.

However, lobbyists for the meat and dairy industries have begun to recognise that persistent social movements (such as veganism) often tend to be quite robust and have the advantage of momentum. As such, Big Ag employs other tactics in its battle to protect farming businesses. In recent years, the animal agriculture industry has looked increasingly to language for protection.

In 2017, the dairy industry successfully pressured EU courts to prohibit plant-based milk companies (such as Swedish brand Oatly) from using any milk- or dairy-related terminology in their branding or on their packaging. This legislation was a considerable blow to the plant-based milk industry, but it served to show the underlying fragility of Big Dairy. On the back of this recent success, European dairy attempted in 2020 to further ban the use of terms such as ‘creamy’ and ‘buttery’ on plant-based products, but fortunately this move was unsuccessful.

These kinds of regulations are a significant tactical weapon in the animal industry’s arsenal. When a plant-based company can no longer legally refer to the very foodstuff that its products aim to imitate or replace, it becomes more difficult to market and sell those products. Their labels may become less visible, less appealing, and less illustrative. Those in the animal agriculture industry know this - and thus language becomes weaponised in their quest for market dominance. However, some companies have found innovative ways to draw attention to this while still advertising, such as THIS, Alpro (with their This Is Not M*lk range), and Oatly (with their message: “we can’t legally call this ice cream, but you still can”). 

In a recent landmark case, the government of France went one step further and passed a decree that intended to outlaw the use of any animal-related terminology on foods that contained no animal-derived ingredients; the new decree would pertain only to food produced in the country. However, this news prompted a swift backlash from many producers and manufacturers in France. After only three weeks, the decree was overturned by France’s highest court. The status of this decree is safe - for now. 

It is clear that ‘language’ is slowly becoming the main theatre in which Big Agriculture and veganism jostle for power. Whereas the animal agriculture industry tends to succeed in gatekeeping animal-related terminology, the vegan movement is not backing down. In fact, there is reasonable cause for optimism: plant-based food producers are constantly using new and innovative ways to market their products, often in comical and sarcastic ways. 

Read more about the funny ways in which plant-based food companies toe the legislative lines.

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