At present, the local plant-based industry uses traditionally meat-related terms such as ‘beef’, ‘meat’, ‘burgers’ and ‘sausages’ to describe products made with plant-based proteins, but the Australian Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee recently opened an inquiry to seek public opinion on reforming regulations.
“[This inquiry will take] specific account of the potential impairment of Australian meat category brand investment from the appropriation of product labelling by [plant-based products], the health implications, the immediate and long-term social and economic impacts, the implications for other Australian animal products and any related matters,” said the committee.
Those in support of a regulatory reform are mostly dairy and meat industry representatives worried about the impact that using nomenclature from their industries would have, whereas alternative protein producers and consumers are unsurprisingly against such a reform.
In support of reform
From the former, meat producers have called for legislative protection for the terms in the name of preventing consumers being misled.
“Truth in labelling is important for providing consumers with information about the food they buy. When products can use deceptive or misleading food descriptors or imagery on their packaging, there needs to be reform of labelling laws,” said Victorian beef firm owner and Coles supermarkets supplier David Allen via his submission, which FoodNavigator-Asia has viewed.
“Consumers want to make informed choices, and products that use beef or cattle imagery or language but don’t have any beef in the product, misleads consumers.
“Products that contain no beef, should not be allowed to market themselves as beef.”
Australian dairy industry body Dairy Connect also submitted comment in solidarity of the meat industry, in hopes of an outcome that would also benefit the dairy industry moving forward.
“The ‘mislabelling’ of plant-based or synthetic protein products under traditionally animal-based terms is, in its most simplistic terms, misleading,” Dairy Connect CEO Shaughn Morgan said.
“[Terms such as meat, beef or lamb] are largely known for health advantages and essentiality within a balanced diet, [just like] the health benefits of fresh milk and dairy products are universally known - As it is, the term ‘milk’ is frequently misused to promote products such as ‘soy milk’ with no dairy milk content, [so these] falsely share the accomplishments of legitimate dairy products.
“The labelling of products needs to be more tightly regulated and monitored in Australia.”
Against the reform
On the other hand, submissions in favour of the use of these terms for plant-based products argued that the terms were more of functional descriptors and already showing in the market today to not have led to any consumer confusion.
One of these was World Animal Protection Australia, which made a crucial point in their submission that potential health implications should not be made part of the decision to allow or disallow the nomenclature, as nutritional labelling regulations are already in place to address these.
“The potential health implications [should] not be a factor in determining whether plant-based products can use [the meat-related] terms as Australia already has stringent requirements in place ensuring that products list their ingredients and, further, that they display the health star rating associated with that product,” said Executive Director Simone Clarke.
“This already ensures consumers are fully informed on what the product contains and whether it is a ‘healthy’ option. The term ‘sausage’ does not connote a particular nutritional standard or value in and of itself [so] allowing products to be labelled as, ‘plant-based sausages’ or similar, would not mislead consumers as to their nutritional value.”
Australian alternative protein advocacy agency Food Frontier did not release a public submission on the inquiry but told us previously that current food labels for plant-based products have already been found to be fit-for-purpose.
“Clear food labelling that provides consumers with easy-to-understand information is necessary, no matter what the product,” Food Frontier Director of Policy and Government Relations Sam Lawrence 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.
“[So] plant-based products in Australian supermarkets today have highly visible product qualifiers that define their content, which is fit-for-purpose as there is no evidence of consumer confusion.”
The agency also voiced 'significant concerns' with how the study had been conducted.
"Apart from relying on a rather dubious approach of flashing products in front of people’s eyes for three seconds, the survey sample is based on five cherry-picked products that use uncommon labelling, when we know there are more than 250 in the market," another Food Frontier spokesman added via an email statement.
"These five products are not representative of what's on our supermarket shelves, and we need to give consumers more credit."
The senate committee will deliberate all submissions and present its report on the matter before the end of February 2022.
In Europe, legislation is in place such that plant-based meat is able to label products with traditional meat terms but plant-based dairy is not. Such legislation is also present in the United States, but varies widely across different states.