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A ‘vegan chicken’ dispute in Switzerland could set a European precedent

confezioni pollo vegano planted
Planted Food, founded in 2019, is Switzerland's largest start-up producing meat substitutes. (c)2019 Thomas Rafalzyk

By the end of the year, Switzerland’s highest court will rule on whether meat alternatives manufactured in Switzerland can continue to be labelled as vegan “chicken” or “pork”. The decision would set a precedent not only in Switzerland but also in Europe.

Planted Foods, Switzerland’s largest start-up producing meat substitutes, could be ordered to remove the terms “chicken” and “pork” from the labels on its pea-based products. This is despite a ruling by the Zurich administrative court that deems the use of animal meat names on the packaging of plant-based foods is not misleading for consumers as long as they are clearly labelled as “vegan”.

Planted Foods was founded in Kemptthal, near Zurich, in 2019 and has since then been selling its products in several European countries, including Germany, Austria and France. The Zurich Cantonal Laboratory, which oversees food and water safety in the canton, had objected to Planted’s labelling and asked it to refrain from using product names such as “planted.chicken” or “Güggeli” (a Swiss-German term for chicken). Planted rejected the request before the Zurich court, which decided in November 2022 in favour of the start-up.

The case is now moving to federal court after Swiss authorities refused to accept the cantonal ruling. Last month, the Federal Department of Home Affairs (FDHA), which also deals with health issues, appealed to the Federal Court, Switzerland’s highest legal authority. It is expected to rule on the case by the end of the year.

If the court rules against the start-up, Switzerland could become the first country in Europe to ban the use of animal meat names in connection with plant-based products.

pollo planted
The Zurich Cantonal Laboratory, which oversees food and water safety in the canton, had objected to Planted’s labelling and asked it to refrain from using product names such as “planted.chicken” or “Güggeli” (a Swiss-German term for chicken). (c)2019 Thomas Rafalzyk

No legal clarity

Current legislation in Switzerland does not provide clarity on the correct naming of plant-based foods. “The law is very abstract and general. The products are not regulated in detail,” said Fabio Versolatto, an intellectual property lawyer at Rentsch Partner in Zurich. In fact, the Federal Act on FoodstuffsExternal link states that “substitutes and imitations must be characterised and advertised in such a way that the consumer can recognise the type of foodstuff and distinguish it from products with which it could be confused”.

This is leading to different legal interpretations. The judges of the Zurich administrative court examined whether the labelling “like chicken” or “like pork” on Planted’s product was misleading but decided in favour of the company because the plant-based origin was also clearly labelled.

Such designations serve to provide sufficient and clear information on the use of the products, just as required by food law, the 2022 ruling statedExternal link. According to the cantonal court, an alternative designation, such as “plant-based food made from pea protein”, would make it difficult for the public to understand that the product is a meat substitute.

That also would not be in the spirit of Planted Foods. “It is important that consumers know exactly how to use new products like ours and how to easily integrate them into their daily lives: the animal descriptions serve this purpose,” a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to SWI

Meanwhile, the FDHA argues that the labelling of vegan meat substitutes, like all other food products, should allow consumers to identify the type of food and not confuse it with others. The department told SWI that it interprets the provisions of food legislation on protection against deception differently than the cantonal court.

fondatori planted
The founders of Planted Foods: Lukas Böni, Pascal Bieri, Eric Stirnemann, and Chistoph Jenny. (c)2019 Thomas Rafalzyk

According to lawyer Versolatto, the ongoing proceedings are a way for the Swiss courts to provide legal clarity in the rather new but fast-growing area of plant-based foods. “The Federal Court decision will set a precedent and give more certainty to Swiss companies producing plant-based alternatives,” he said.

Switzerland vs Europe

Should the Federal Court decide to ban the use of animal meat names on Planted’s labels, it would go against European legislation, which allows meat-related mentions on packaging.

France and Belgium already tried to push back on European rules in 2020 when it banned names such as “vegetable steak” and “vegetable chicken pieces”, but both countries have yet to implement national regulations. Switzerland could outpace its neighbours and become the first country in Europe to ban the use of such labels if the court decides accordingly.

The issue remains controversial. Diego Moretti, who studies human nutrition at the Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences (FFHS), thinks it is not entirely correct to call something chicken if it isn’t: “Vegetable chicken is not entirely equivalent to real chicken from a nutritional point of view.” However, Moretti added that the risk of the two products being confused is very small.

Versolatto, on the other hand, says that it is reasonable from a consumer protection perspective to raise the issue of denomination. “The fear is that some people, especially older people who do not know English, may not realise that these are alternatives to meat,” he said.

But his colleague Janine Anderegg, a food science expert and patent engineer at the Zurich law firm, thinks that consumers are able to distinguish between plant and animal foods because there are now so many alternatives available.

“There are hundreds more plant-based products on supermarket shelves today than there were ten years ago,” said Anderegg. The fact that plant-based alternatives are now competing with meat products weighs heavily on the discussion, she added: “Pressure from the meat industry in trying to protect its own name cannot be excluded.”

Edited by Sabrina Weiss

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