The communique issued from the most recent Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation placed this issue under the header of ‘Misleading Descriptions of Food’, where it was revealed that the labelling of both plant-based and cell-based products had been discussed, but no conclusions had been reached as yet.
According to the official statement, concerns had been raised by ‘some stakeholders’ that labelling plant-based alternatives ‘may be misleading to consumers’, but that the alternative products sector was also recognized for its ‘growing value’.
“Ministers noted claims that manmade (e.g. plant-based) and synthetic (e.g. cell-based) foods are trading on the intellectual properties of primary producers and appealing to the unconscious values consumers attach to natural products like dairy and meat products,” said the forum.
Australian Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie is one of the region’s biggest proponents of a ban on these terms on labels, and pushed for this to go through at the forum, citing a need to ‘protect our farmers’.
“[Changes] to the labelling of plant-based dairy and meat alternatives [are needed] in order to help protect our Australian dairy and meat industries-industries that are producing authentic products,” she said in a public statement.
On her Twitter previously, McKenzie had also said she was: “Not happy with latest fake food push. Chicken-free chicken is not chicken, it’s reconstituted peas. We need to protect our farmers,” in response to news that New Zealand plant-based food firm Sunfed Meats had launched its Chicken-Free Chicken in Australia.
The response was fast and furious – many of the tweets responding to McKenzie’s original post criticised her statement, reminding her that in addition to meat and dairy farmers, crop farmers such as pea farmers were farmers as well.
Sunfed Meats CEO Shama Sukul Lee also responded with a strong statement, not only criticising McKenzie but accusing those who supported a ban on ‘meat’ and ‘milk’ labels of having a ‘vested interest’.
“The primary purpose [of food labelling] is to serve the consumer by informing them of the functionality and composition of the food product. Essentially, how to use it and what’s in it. [E.g.] peanut butter, where the word butter evolved to convey functionality to the consumer so they are able to quickly grasp that this product can be used like butter,” said Lee on The Spinoff.
“[But with meat alternatives], instead of allowing that same natural evolution of language, there’s strong resistance. But not from the consumer or the farmer. Rather from the powerful meat and dairy industry, backed by politicians with vested interests.”
Lee went on to push the point that the meat industry was being given preferential treatment in this case, in terms of antibiotic levels, GMO feeds used and high food safety risks not having seen any regulatory changes made to make labels highlight these – but a different scenario being seen for meat alternatives.
“All this shows that this issue is clearly not about the consumer. Instead it’s driven by a powerful industry to curb competition,” said Lee.
“By putting in new laws designed to actively stunt market expansion and choices for the consumer, the Australian government is devolving to feudal protectionism.
“The words meat and milk were never reserved just for animals – coconut meat and milk prove as much.”
Almond milk firm Almo Milk Chief Executive Linda Monique concurred with this view, highlighting that consumers were aware of what they were consuming.
“It's almost discrediting Australians as being stupid and not being aware of the differences between dairy milk and almond milk,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
"People understand that almond milk does not come from a cow that's been fed almonds."
What’s going on elsewhere
In the United States, suspicions are also abound that such debates are more political than for the benefit of consumers.
“Both in the US and Australia, our federal governments are engaged in a campaign to support industry and bombard us with messages to get us to consume more meat, eggs and dairy,” United States author and lawyer David Robinson Simon said at a public talk.
He claimed that the same sorts of campaigns were ongoing in Australia to ensure that meat consumption in the country remained high.
In July last year, the American state of Arkansas enforced an act that prohibited all companies from using terms such as ‘meat’, ‘sausage’, ‘burger’ and so on to describe products not sourced from animals, even with qualifiers such as ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’.
This was challenged by plant-based company Tofurky, and in December 2019 a federal court blocked the enforcement of this ban via a preliminary injunction, on the basis that this was in violation of the country’s Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, enabling Tofurky to carry on business as usual with its current labels (e.g. plant-based sausage) for now.
“The State appears to believe that the simple use of the word ‘burger,’ ‘ham,’ or ‘sausage’ leaves the typical consumer confused, but such a position requires the assumption that a reasonable consumer will disregard all other words found on the label. […] That assumption is unwarranted,” said Judge Kristine Baker.
As the battle rages on in Australia, it is hard to say how, or whether, this latest judgement will be taken into consideration as the forum gets set to meet again early this year to continue discussions on alternative protein labelling.