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. 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. For a start, it was problematic that Masterfoods' decision was financially motivated. In general large companies still struggle with the image as megalithic money-bags, and consumers are unlikely to swallow the idea that they are being fed something they do not want simply to line their pockets. It might have been a different story had Masterfoods' reformulation been based on maintaining or improving the taste of the product. In 2005 Cadbury Trebor Bassett resisted pressure from The Vegetarian Society to reformulate Jelly Babies using vegetarian gelatine. The company said it had investigated gelatine alternatives and was unable to replicate the texture. It was able to stick to its guns because it is more acceptable for a company to refuse to reformulate using vegetarian ingredients than it is for them take away a vegetarian treat-food. Secondly, 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. 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. On the ingredients side of the industry, considerable R&D is devoted to coming up with vegetarian alternatives to animal ingredients. For instance, both BASF and DSM have vitamin and nutrient ranges that are suitable for a broad range of diet preferences. Last year Dutch potato starch group Avebe created a new subsidiary called Solanic, offering vegetable proteins said to overcome functional barriers that have led some companies to plump for animal proteins in the past. The sense behind such strategies increases with every animal-related food scare. Even those who aren't strictly speaking vegetarian are more and more sensitive about the source of the food they eat. 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. Jess Halliday is editor of FoodNavigator.com and the former editor of NutraIngredients.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. This article was co-authored by Catherine Boal, editor of ConfectioneryNews.com and a vegetarian. If you would like to comment on it, please email jess.halliday 'at' decisionnews.com.