Switzerland: Zurich Administrative Court deems use of animal designations in the labelling of vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives not misleading

In brief

The legal framework for the labelling of vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat is continuously evolving and also differs from country to country. In Switzerland, the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) had put forward a very strict interpretation, deeming as deceptive and thus prohibited any use of animal designations in the labelling of vegan and vegetarian meat alternatives. In a recent decision, the Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich rejected this strict approach and deemed the use of the terms "planted.chicken", "like chicken", "like pork", "pulled pork", "vegan pork" or "chicken from plants" on the packaging of vegan meat alternatives as not deceptive.


Legal framework for the labelling of meat alternatives in Switzerland

Art. 18 of the Swiss Foodstuffs Act (FSA) provides that all information relating to foodstuffs must correspond to the facts and that the presentation, labelling and packaging as well as advertising for foodstuffs must not mislead consumers. In particular any presentation, labelling, packaging and advertising that may deceive consumers as to the manufacture, composition, condition, method of production, storage life, country of production, origin of the raw materials or components, particular effects or special value of the product is regarded as misleading. This prohibition is further specified in Art. 12 of the Ordinance on Foodstuffs and Utility Articles

Art. 19 FSA requires that substitute and imitation products must be labeled and advertised in such a way that consumers can recognize the true nature of the foodstuff and distinguish it from products with which it could be confused.

Strict interpretation put forward by the FSVO

To ensure the consistent interpretation and application of these norms, the FSVO issued the information letter 2020/3.1 entitled "Vegan and vegetarian alternatives to foods of animal origin" ("Information Letter") on 30 September 2021. In this Information Letter, the FSVO puts forward a very strict interpretation of the relevant provisions and thus significantly restricted the possible denominations for vegan and vegetarian alternatives to foods of animal origins.

For instance, according to the Information Letter, the use of descriptive product denominations for alternative vegetarian or vegan products is not permissible, even if accompanied by an indication that refers to the plant origin of the product. Therefore, denominations such as "vegan white chocolate" or "vegan mayonnaise" are non-compliant and prohibited. In contrast, denominations such as "vegan alternative to mayonnaise" or "vegan butter substitute" are permissible.

According to the Information Letter, terms that are traditionally associated with foods of animal origin but do not directly refer to the animal origin of the food, such as filet, steak, schnitzel, hamburger, or sausage, are permissible for vegetarian or vegan alternatives to animal products if the plant origin of the product is clearly indicated. However, the Information Letter further states that the use of designations of animal species such as "beef," "veal" or "tuna" for vegan and vegetarian alternatives is not permitted, even if used with a reference to the plant origin of the product. Thus, designations such as "vegan beef fillet", "vegetarian tuna" or "soy-based veal sausage" are not permitted. 

More permissive interpretation put forward by the Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich

In its decision of 10 November 2022, the Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich had to assess whether the use of animal designations for labelling plant-based food products had to be regarded as deceitful and thus prohibited. Specifically, the Swiss-based company Planted was prohibited from using the terms "planted.chicken", "like chicken", "like pork", "pulled pork", "vegan pork" or "chicken from plants" on the packaging of its vegan meat alternatives.

In its decision, the Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich takes a position that contradicts the Information Letter of the FSVO: It argued that the use of the adjective "vegetarian" or "vegan" in connection with an animal designation indicates that the food in question is not a meat product of a vegetarian or vegan fed animal, but a substitute product. The same applies when the adjective "vegetable" is used in conjunction with an animal designation. This conclusion was supported by a study Planted commissioned, which arrived at the conclusion that 93% of the German-speaking population of Switzerland recognized products as vegetarian/vegan based on the packaging.

The Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich further found that the use of animal designations on Planted's products also served the purpose of explaining to the public the intended use of the food "like chicken" or "like pork". This information was required by the relevant provisions of Swiss food law, since the description as "vegetable food made from pea protein" is by itself not sufficient to show the public that the product is intended to substitute meat in meat-containing recipes and can be used like meat when cooking.

According to the Zurich Administrative Court, the entire appearance of the food product must be considered, not just a single word printed on its label/packaging. Planted's packaging bears on the front a reference to the "Swiss Vegan Awards 2020" as well as in each case a prominently placed advertising slogan that aims to promote the respective product as an "alternative to meat". Moreover, on the back the products show the inscription "VEGAN," which immediately catches the eye due to the color design, together with the well-known "V-Label." According to the Administrative Court, in view of this specific design, and in accordance with the results of the complainant's survey, it can be assumed that the contested packaging, due to its overall presentation, does not give the average consumer the misleading impression that these are meat products.

As a consequence, the Zurich Administrative Court did not follow the position put forward by the FSVO in the Information Letter, according to which the use of animal designations in the labelling of vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives always constitutes a risk of deception, regardless of the specific context and of any further references made on the packaging. Rather, whether or not the use of animal designations is deceptive must be assessed based on the overall impression of the packaging in question. In this specific case, the Administrative Court of the Canton of Zurich came to the conclusion that the disputed labelling was not deceptive and that Planted was allowed to use "planted.chicken," "like chicken," "like pork," "pulled pork," "vegan pork" or "chicken from plants" on the packaging of its vegan meat alternatives.

The decision of the Zurich Administrative Court may still be appealed to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court by the responsible cantonal authority. It remains to be seen whether the Swiss Federal Supreme Court would follow the more permissive interpretation of the Zurich Administrative Court or the more restrictive interpretation put forward by the FSVO in its Information Letter.

Key Takeaways

  • Vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat products must be labelled and advertised in such a way that consumers can recognize the true vegan or vegetarian nature of the food and distinguish it from meat products with which it could be confused (Art. 19 FSA).
  • According to the Information Letter of the FSVO and practice of the cantonal authorities, the use of designations of animal species such as "beef," "veal" or "tuna" for vegan and vegetarian alternatives is per se deceptive and not permitted. 
  • According to the Zurich Administrative Court, the use of designations of animal species for vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat products is permitted, if the plant origin of the product or if the vegan or vegetarian nature of the product is clearly indicated, which precludes a deception of the consumers. 
  • According to the Zurich Administrative Court, the entire appearance of the food product must be considered when assessing whether the use of animal designations is deceptive or not. 
  • If the view of the Zurich Administrative Court is confirmed, manufacturers of vegan and vegetarian alternatives to meat products will have greater flexibility in labelling their products and providing consumers with additional information about the intended use of the vegan or vegetarian food (e.g., "like chicken" or "like pork").
  • This example shows that the FSVO and cantonal authorities might sometimes have a stricter practice than required by law. It is advisable to critically examine the decisions of cantonal authorities and to assess whether an appeal against such decision is necessary.

Thank you to Ariana Birrer for her contribution to this alert.


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