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Can you call it a sausage roll if there’s no meat in it?

New research has revealed fresh insights in the debate about the naming of vegetarian products. Here Steve Harman, Account Director at Ingredient Communications, explores what it means for food ingredient companies.

The latest instalment in the UK’s culture wars was sparked by a six-inch (15cm) pastry product. With considerable help from enraged TV pundit Piers Morgan, the high street bakery chain Greggs managed to make its new vegan sausage roll the subject of a media frenzy.

At the heart of the debate was a question about semantics. As one tweeter philosophically wondered: “Can you call it a sausage roll if there’s no meat in it?

The UK isn’t the only place where vegetarian or vegan products with meat or dairy-related names are the subject of controversy. Elsewhere, they’re being banned. In 2017, the European Court of Justice prohibited the use of names such as milk, butter and cheese for non-dairy products. Last year, France passed legislation preventing vegetarian products from being labelled in the same way as traditional animal products. And in the US, companies in Missouri are now banned from “misrepresenting a product as meat” if it doesn’t come from livestock or poultry.

Much of this is being driven by a meat industry backlash the against the huge growth in popularity of plant-based diets. The politician who proposed the French ban is a former cattle farmer and the Missouri law was supported by the state’s Cattlemen’s Association.

It’s to be expected that such groups would want to protect their turf, but where do consumers stand? At Ingredient Communications, with help from expert pollsters Surveygoo, we set out to explore attitudes to the naming of meat-free products. We surveyed nearly 1,000 people (499 in the UK and 484 in the US), including vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians and meat-eaters.

It’s fair to say that we were surprised by some of the results. Across all groups, 25% of respondents said manufacturers of vegetarian products should not be permitted to use meat-related names like sausage, burger or steak.

Vegetarians were the least likely to disapprove of meat-related names, with only 18% supporting a ban. However, vegans had a very different perspective. They were even more likely than meat-eaters to oppose meat-free products using meat-related names, with one in three supporting a ban. They were also the group least likely to buy a meat-free product if it was labelled with a word such as sausage, burger or steak.

What this suggests is that the labels “vegan”, “vegetarian”, and “meat-eater” can describe more than what we eat, or don’t eat. They are often distinct tribes with very different outlooks. Many vegans are more passionately anti-meat than vegetarians – to the point that they reject products that look or taste like it. Meanwhile, the outrage expressed by some carnivores about a simple sausage roll demonstrates how fundamental the consumption of meat is to their identities.

So, what’s the lesson for food ingredient companies? Perhaps it’s that you should never forget that there’s always a political aspect to food ― everything you make will end up in a product that, in some small way, will define someone’s identity. And that means that you’re never far away from a PR controversy.