Plant-based label debate in Australia: Industry calls out government over ‘unbalanced representation’ at roundtable discussion

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The plant-based industry in Australia has called out the government for what it is calling an ‘unbalanced representation’ at a recent roundtable to discuss product labelling. ©Getty Images
The plant-based industry in Australia has called out the government for what it is calling an ‘unbalanced representation’ at a recent roundtable to discuss product labelling. ©Getty Images

Related tags: plant-based, Australia

The plant-based industry in Australia has called out the government for what it is calling an ‘unbalanced representation’ at a recent roundtable to discuss product labelling and is denouncing the need for any new regulations to govern the sector.

Australian Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud hosted a roundtable earlier this year to discuss the labelling of plant-based products, which included members from the plant-based, meat, dairy, egg, manufacturing, and retail sectors – but the plant-based sector has criticised the representation for being unbalanced in favour of the traditional sectors.

“The roundtable [had] heavy representation from the traditional livestock and dairy sectors, with Food Frontier the sole representative of the alternative protein sector,”​ Food Frontier Director of Policy and Government Relations Sam Lawrence told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“The working group process has seen the department renege on the Minister’s commitment to have a representative of each of the meat, dairy, egg, manufacturing, retail and alternative protein sectors, by expanding the group to include two voices each from the meat and dairy sectors.

“The result of this unbalanced representation is that any outcome from the working group process cannot be deemed balanced or credible.

Lawrence also highlighted that changes to existing labelling regulations had been vetoed by the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation twice in the past, including recently in November 2019.

“It is important to note that the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation [has previously] twice declined to pursue changes to [these regulations], finding them fit-for-purpose,”​ he said.

“[This new] process appears to be an attempt by the traditional livestock and dairy sectors to pursue regulatory changes by circumventing the appropriate channels.”

In a formal statement about the roundtable, Littleproud had emphasised that its objective was to ‘ensure labelling of plant-based products is clear, truthful, and accurate for Australian consumers’, and that the local food labelling system ‘has integrity’.

“[We] need a fair playing field on food labelling - I am sympathetic to concerns from producers of genuine meat and dairy products who are forced to contend with highly creative, and sometimes misleading advertising and labelling of plant-based foods and drinks,” ​he said.
 
“Seeking more truthful labelling and protecting the reputation of genuine meat and dairy products is not an attack on fake meat and milk. Plant-based industries form an integral part of Australian agriculture and provide crucial jobs to many Australians.”           

It should be noted that the term ‘fake meat and milk’ which was used is greatly disfavoured by many proponents of the plant-based product industry.

Lawrence blasted the assumption that current plant-based labels are confusing Australian consumers, citing research data to the contrary.

“Nationally representative Colmar Brunton research here in Australia shows existing plant-based labelling is fit-for-purpose. In fact, 91% of Australians and 94% of New Zealanders have never mistakenly purchased a plant-based product thinking it was its animal-based counterpart, and vice versa,”​ he said.

“The evidence is clear: consumers are not confused, and global authorities agree. It is time to put this conversation to bed in Australia and New Zealand. The recent vote for common-sense in the EU demonstrates that Australia’s existing approach to plant-based meat labelling is consistent with comparable international jurisdictions.

Are regulations still on the way?

Despite this, it does appear that Littleproud still intends to pursue further discussions on the matter.

“The Australian Government is committed to accurate and truthful labelling of plant-based food and drink products,”​ he said.

“There is a place for both plant-based and genuine meat and dairy products in Australia’s agriculture system, but we need to set the divide so that one is not unfairly trading on the reputation of the other.
 
“I look forward to continuing to work with industry on the steps to improve labelling and empower Australian producers and consumers.” 

Lawrence added that the roundtable is expected to be the first of more industry discussions, though he expressed optimism that the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation’s decision would stand.

“The roundtable was established by the Minister as a device to host a pre-determined series of further ‘working groups’ designed to pursue new ‘approaches’ to plant-based product labelling,”​ he said.

“Plant-based meats use terms like ‘vegie’ and ‘meat-free’ to indicate their contents, paired with terms such as ‘burger’ and ‘mince’ that define their utility - Clear qualifiers on plant-based products are proven to work, just as chicken, beef and lamb, paired with a utility term like ‘sausage’ or ‘burger’, are used on animal-based products.

“Food Frontier [will] continue to call for a regulatory environment that supports this ambition and remains optimistic that common-sense will prevail.”

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