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Words Change, Meanings Evolve, but Meat and Milk Companies Think Customers are Stupid


You’ve probably heard by now that France banned the use of meat-like terms in packaging for vegetarian food. Yes, that’s right. “Food producers in France,” as reported by the Independent, “will be forced to think of new ways to describe some of their vegetarian and vegan foods when they are banned from using terms such as ‘vegetarian sausages and ‘vegan bacon.’ French MPs have voted to outlaw use of such vocabulary, claiming they mislead shoppers.

Firms will no longer be able to use ‘burger,’  ‘steak’, ‘sausage’ or ‘fillet’ to describe foods that have no meat in them, such as ‘ham’ slices or ‘chicken’ pies that are made of soya or wheat. The ban on such vocabulary will also apply to dairy alternatives.”

I recently shared my response to the Economist magazine’s article about “The Vegetarian Butcher,” Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer who wants “to become the biggest butcher in the world without ever slaughtering an animal.” 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.

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.”

And of course we’re familiar with such shenanigans in the United States as the dairy lobby uses the Dairy Pride Act to try and outlaw the use of such words as “milk,” “ice cream,” “butter,” and “yogurt” from products made from non-dairy sources. I’d like to see them tell a lactating woman she has to refer to her “breast beverage” because the dairy industry “owns” the word milk or that peanut butter companies have to devise a new name for this favorite food.

The movement toward banning “meat,” “milk,” and other descriptors from plant-based versions simply demonstrates how threatened companies and governments are by the success of these products. Instead of hopping on the cruelty-free bandwagon, they’re attempting to hinder their growth in the marketplace. (It won’t work.)

Meanings evolve, words change, context matters, and consumers aren’t stupid. They know a veggie version from an animal-based one and in fact, they’re choosing the former over the latter precisely because it’s animal-free. No one who orders a veggie burger, drinks almond milk, or eats cashew cheese is being duped. But associations with the names of familiar animal-based meats and milks 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”; in English, 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.

The word underwent the same evolution in French. The word viande (“meat”) also originally meant food in general — not simply the flesh of animals for consumption. That word became narrowed over time, but its root vivere remains, meaning “to live.” In its current usage referring to a dismembered body part of a dead animal, however, viande certainly represents anything but life.

Language is not simply a means of communication. It represents and reinforces the attitudes of our culture; it informs and gives social credit to our thoughts, rhetoric, and actions; and it masks, justifies, or dulls our ethical red flags. In fact, I would argue that the words the meat, dairy, and egg industries currently rely on to market and sell their products are really the ones that dupe consumers. The euphemisms they use to hock their wares disguise the violence inherent in bringing animals into this world only to kill them. Even the very use of the words pork, bacon, poultry, beef, burger, and steak conceals the presence of the once-living animals.

Perhaps instead of banning such qualifiers as “veggie,” “vegetarian,” and “vegan,” they should add “pig,” “piglet,” “sow,” “cow,” “calf,” “steer,” “bird,” or even “animal” as qualifiers on their own products. “Cashew milk” could then compete fairly with “calf’s milk,” and “veggie burger” would be on the same playing field as “cow burger.” 

If they’re really so worried about “duping” or “confusing consumers,” they would stop referring to their production practices in euphemistic terms. The egg and chicken industries would stop referring to the burning or cutting off of the tips of birds’ beaks without anaesthesia as “beak conditioning.” They would stop referring to the amputation of the tips of birds’ toes without anaesthesia as “toe clipping” or “toe conditioning.” The dairy industry would stop calling  the cutting off of cows’ tails without anesthesia “tail trimming.” The pork industry would stop referring to the pens they confine pregnant pigs in as “maternity pens” or “individual gestation accommodations.” And instead of referring to their practice of killing piglets by slamming their heads against floors or walls, as “blunt force trauma,” they would call it what it is. 

The animal exploitation industries and the politicians who rely on the deep pockets of the animal agriculture industry know that words matter, which is precisely why they work so hard to conceal the reality of their practices and products from the public. 

The attempt to control the words used by plant-based companies — words that are already part of the public’s vernacular — is a desperate and short-sighted ploy to save a dying paradigm. Animal-based meat, dairy, and egg companies are fighting a losing battle and missing a golden opportunity to  give customers what they want: animal-free versions that provide the fat, salt, flavor, familiarity, and texture without the cruelty. 

Instead of trying to change words, they could be part of changing the future.

__________________________

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an author, speaker, podcaster, and host of Animalogy, a podcast about the animal-related words and expressions we use every day

(Listen to the numerous podcast episodes I have on the naming of meats and milks as well as the word “butcher.” Some are part of Animalogy podcast; some are part of Food for Thought.)

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