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Consumers Aren’t Stupid (Letter in The Economist)


Thanks to DawnWatch, a nonprofit media-focused animal advocacy organization whose mission is to encourage and facilitate positive coverage of animal issues in major media (sign up for alerts at dawnwatch.com), I learned about an article in the print edition of The Economist magazine titled, “I can’t believe it’s not meat” with the subheading, “Plant-based ‘meat’ is so tasty that Europe’s meat industry has to bite back. A Dutch vegetarian butcher is the latest to come under attack for its labelling.”

The article focuses on “The Vegetarian Butcher,” Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer who wants “to become the biggest butcher in the world without ever slaughtering an animal.” Not only did I absolutely LOVE the accompanying photo (see above), but I was intrigued by the fact that it’s not only Korteweg’s products that are threatening the status quo, it’s the NAMES he gives to his products.

As a result, some Dutch politicians called for a ban on meat names for products that contained no animal protein, and “the country’s food authority asked The Vegetarian Butcher to rename misleading products...because it might confuse consumers. The topic trended on Twitter for days; sales soared. Dutch media termed the episode ‘Schnitzelgate’ after a similar situation in Germany, whose minister for agriculture said that ‘meaty names’ such as ‘schnitzel’ and ‘wurst’ should only be legal for animal-based products.”

Of course we’re familiar with such shenanigans in the United States (listen to my previous podcast episodes on the naming of meats and milks as well as the word “butcher”), and being very interested in the topic of language and animals, of course I wrote a letter, and I’m pleased to say it was published this week in The Economist. As it was slightly truncated, I’m including the entire letter below. I encourage you to read the original article and remember it’s never too late to reply with a thank you to the editors for such a positive article about such a pressing issue. 

The companies trying to ban “meat names” from plant-based versions are simply demonstrating how threatened they are by the success of these products. They can fight to change the descriptors, but they cannot change the fact that consumers are increasingly choosing animal-free versions that provide the fat, salt, flavor, familiarity, and texture without the inherent cruelty. Words change, context matters, and consumers aren’t stupid. They know a veggie version from a flesh-based one, but associations with the names of familiar animal-based meats help create their gustatory expectations.

More than that, the etymology of these words reveal that they have less to do with the animals than we think: schnitzel comes from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “to cut, slice”; wurst comes from a Proto-Germanic root meaning “to mix up”; sausage comes from the Latin word for “salted”; even the original meaning of word meat was “food in general” — and we still use that meaning today in sweetmeat, coconut meat, and the meat of a nut.

~Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Oakland CA

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