Milking it? The Beef with Oatly and Amendment 171

Holly Miles investigates the motivation behind Amendment 171 and Oatly’s retaliation in an effort to reject the ban.

Amendment 171 was passed on the 30th of October 2020, with a narrow majority of 54%, sparking outcry from plant-based businesses in the EU. This Amendment could fundamentally change the legalities of how these businesses market their products. Since October, resistance has risen to challenge the decision of the EU Parliament. But what exactly does 171 mean, and how likely is it that the Amendment will be overturned?

Sensible or ‘plant-based censorship’? What the Amendment means if put into motion:

  • Informative descriptions cannot be included on packaging. For example, indicating that a plant-based milk ‘does not contain milk’.
  • Plant-based products cannot be described as an ‘alternative to’ dairy products.
  • Climate impact comparisons, such as the amount of CO2 produced by the manufacturing of a product, cannot be depicted on the packaging.
  • Any plant-based product with a ‘creamy’ taste or texture cannot be described as such, as this does not originate from the milk of an animal.
  • There is potential that plant-based products may not be allowed to share the same packaging options as dairy products.

The European Green New Deal outlines a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The EU dairy sector is also the second largest agricultural sector in the EU and represents more than 12% of the total agricultural output. Considering these statistics, the influential power of the Milk Lobby is unsurprising. Though the European retail sales of meat and dairy alternatives have expanded by almost 10% per year between 2010 and 2020, the plant-based market is indisputably still a minority market. This annual growth rate is, however, expected to be maintained to 2025, meaning that retail sales of meat alternatives could increase to 2.5 billion EUR. Will Amendment 171 threaten this prediction?

Since October, Swedish-born brand Oatly have retaliated with a sarcastic ad-campaign. Posted on their social media platforms, the videos depict a faux research group. Against a backdrop of jovial music, ‘participants’ are shown testing alternative packaging – soap dispensers, and spray bottles associated typically with cleaning products – as potential containers for plant-based milks. Though the repercussions of Amendment 171 are potentially vast for Oatly and other plant-based brands, Oatly’s media output seems to make light of the vote, relaying to their customer-base just how ridiculous they believe the decision to be.

‘Are you stupid?’. Oatly’s campaign has also focused on the patronization of the consumer. In another Instagram post, the faux research group are repeatedly asked to differentiate between a carton of cow’s milk and a carton of plant-based milk, with the two positioned side by side. Though humorous, Oatly’s media output projects a more serious agenda, encouraging followers to vote in a petition that rejects Amendment 171 before it is put into motion. Oatly deems the Amendment to have been motivated by ‘plant-based censorship’. Director of Public Affairs, Celia McAleavey, states that ‘given the urgency of the climate crisis’, Amendment 171 is a ‘highly irresponsible move’.

Oatly are not isolated in their outlook. EU politicians such as Sylwia Spurek have tweeted against the Amendment, stating that ‘consumers want more plant-based products’ and that ‘the EU must support this process, not impede it’. Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg has also voiced resistance to the legislation, tweeting with similar sarcasm. Attracting resistance not only from high-profile environmentalists, the petition currently has the support of 341,156 people. Numerous other brands, such as Quorn and Naturli’ have indicated their support, urging the EU Parliament to reconsider their decision.

We are in a climate- and ecological emergency. What should we do?
I know!

Let’s ban plant-based-dairy-from-displaying-allergen-info,-being-sold-in-cartons,-using-images-of-their-own-products-and-explaining-the-climate-impact-of-food. That’ll fix it.

Farm to Fork Strategy has since been launched within the European Commission, with an aim to recognize ‘inextricable links between healthy people, healthy food and a healthy planet’, they describe themselves as being ‘at the heart of the Green Deal’. Of their many motivations, they state the intention empower customers to ‘make informed, healthy and sustainable food choices’, and product packaging is important in this process. Farm to Fork Strategy recognize that ‘the provision of clear information that makes it easier for customers to choose healthy and sustainable diets’. Surely, the limitations that Amendment 171 would impose resist this central ambition.

Image Credits: European Commission

What follows are a series of negotiations between the European Parliament, the EU Council of Ministers and the European Commission. Given the narrow voting margin and subsequent backlash, it is not unlikely that Amendment 171 will be rejected.

However, this battle raises serious questions about the powerful influence of the Milk Lobby. The elbow room between dairy products and plant-alternatives seems to be ever-decreasing. Future legal battles between the two industries are likely. Not only does Amendment 171 potentially threaten those with allergies or intolerances through a reduction of clear packaging, when the urgency of the climate crisis is considered, attempts to challenge the growing plant-based market are immensely counterproductive.

About the Author: Holly Miles is News and Politics Editor of WILD Magazine and is in her third year of studying English Literature at the University of York.

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