Masterfoods and the vegetarianisation of food

Found an excellent commentary by Jess Halliday, the editor of and former editor of She looks at the whole Masterfoods debacle and at the resulting backlash by veggies at their stupid decision and it serves as a warning to any other food companies that you should not discount any consumers – especially vegetarians lightly.

It is a longish article, but as I said it is excellent and well worth taking the time to read. I’ll do an abridged version and highlight a few passages here to give you the gist »

Masterfoods and the vegetarianisation of food

Masterfoods’ U-turn over its plan to reformulate its famous confectionery brands using animal-derived whey sets a precedent that will prevent any other food manufacturer from flying in the face of the global trend towards the vegetarianisation of our food.

A vicious battle raged in the UK last week between Masterfoods and a small, but vocal, army of vegetarians when the maker of Mars, Maltesers, Snickers and Galaxy bars decided to use rennet, animal-derived whey (taken from calves’ stomachs), instead of the more costly vegetarian whey.

The decision, based on the desire to shave a few digits off the company’s costs, sparked huge debate played out in columns of mainstream newspapers.

Faced with a reported 6,000 letters from furious chocoholics, Mars regretted its misjudgement and yesterday executed an impressive about-face. The company issued a lengthy apology to its customers and vowed to keep its products meat-free….

“We’ll take a break”

“…and we’re back…”

(So)….how on earth would a company communicate its intention to take a product from vegetarian to non-vegetarian?

As Masterfoods discovered, decisions like these have to be handled with the utmost delicacy so as not to blow up into a public relations disaster that will have long-lasting effects on the brand.

It could not exactly have come out with an advertising campaign featuring cute little calves being slaughtered. But anything short of full disclosure results in criticism of acting in an underhand way and trying to dupe the consumer.

Masterfoods’ approach was something between the two. It did not keep completely schtum but sent discreet letters to retailers informing them of the reformulation. However the content of these letter has not been made public, and it was only when The Vegetarian Society was informed about them that the campaign kicked off.

But why the furore in the first place? Surely a manufacturer is entitled to tweak the odd recipe?

Well yes. If it wants to alienate a slice of its consumer base, then on its own bottom-line be it. But one gets the feeling that Masterfoods did not factor in the 3m UK vegetarians who would no longer spend their pocket money on its wares.

And in the light of the embarrassing conclusion to the affair, other food manufacturers – not just in the UK, but in the rest of Europe and the US – are highly unlikely to try the same tactic.

So are we heading for a future where the only products that are not suitable for vegetarians are those that contain meat in its familiar form, pictured on the packaging and included in the product name?

Probably not. There are still some ingredients, particularly those with nutritional properties, that cannot be sourced from plant matter. What is more, most vegetarians are aware there are certain foods they should avoid – like jelly sweets, for instance. If they are unsure, it is to them to look at the ingredients list.

But there is no denying that there is a general shift towards making foods suitable for more consumer groups – not only vegetarians but also people who adhere to kosher or halal diets, or allergy sufferers.

I’ve quoted nearly the whole thing, but it is important to read and has good points.
Jess concludes…

At the finished product end, the vegetarian lobby is a powerful one.

The Vegetarian Society has collaborated with the UK’s Food Standards Agency on a set of guidelines for vegetarian and vegan products, which were released last April. These guidelines are not legally enforceable, but are designed to improve labelling by providing criteria, help manufacturers avoid common mistakes, and help enforcement agencies identify misleading labels that contravene the 1990 Food Safety Act or the 1968 Trade Descriptions Act.

Ideally The Vegetarian Society would like to see a set of legal definitions governing what foods can be construed as vegetarian and what not.

It is not there yet, but one day it might be – and then the situation will become clearer, both for vegetarians and for companies who cater to them and every other dietary peccadillo out there. In the meantime, unless they relish the thought of vegetarians baying for their blood, companies are advised to leave vegetarians’ treat foods well alone.

» Full (printable) article

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