IT was another big day of hearings for the Senate Inquiry into the definitions of meat yesterday, as Senators Susan McDonald (Nationals) and Lloyd Whish-Wilson (Australian Greens) put in a marathon shift with questions to 18 industry groups and businesses across a full-day zoom session.
The inquiry is examining whether current labelling standards which allow plant-based protein products to use animal images and descriptors in their labelling are confusing for consumers, and if mandatory rules versus a voluntary code are needed to ensure truth in labelling.
It was an eventful day dominated by talk of pub tests, mutually assured destruction and vanishing pieces of legislation, while the mysterious relationship between an “independent” plant-based think-tank and an advocacy body for the plant-based sector also came under some scrutiny.
The story so far: The meat industry says clear mandatory rules are needed to ensure truth in labelling and to protect consumers from products being branded with misleading, unverified claims.
The plant-based sector argues that any move to take a regulatory approach to labelling will threaten the growth of an important new growth opportunity for Australian agriculture and protein supply for the world, and a voluntary code will sort out any issues around labelling.
Confused or not confused? Alternative protein groups such as Food Frontier suggests the research shows no current confusion with labelling (that is at least not counting the 9 percent of consumers who did mistakenly purchase a plant-based product thinking it was its meatbased counterpart, or vice versa, as outlined in its 2019 analysis). The meat industry says its own research conducted by Pollinate shows more than 60pc of consumers are confused by current labelling. And while on the subject, it’s worth noting that almost every one of the several cattle producers who addressed the inquiry yesterday spoke of having been personally duped into buying a plant-based product, thinking they were buying the real McCoy.
More independent research needed, then? On that note some witnesses yesterday suggested greater independent research is needed to demonstrate if current labelling standards are problematic and need fixing. Some groups believed that would indeed be useful, but not all agreed. Plant based proteins are more than 90pc different to the product they’re aiming to replace, said CQ cattle producer, food manufacturer, and AgForce and Australian Beef Sustainability Framework representative Mark Davie noted. Would further investigation really be needed if someone was trying to market a zucchini and a cucumber as the same thing, he asked?
Isn’t this just about cattle producers trying to avoid competition? Senator Lloyd Whish-Wilson asked several cattle industry representatives this question, and received a pretty much universal answer in response – a firm ‘no’. This is about protecting consumers, they said, not to mention vegans as well: “This is not about competition, this is not about us protecting our marketplace at all,” AgForce cattle president Will Wilson said. “The people we want to put shields around in this case are our consumers, and also the vegans and flexitarians. I don’t think they should be put in a situation where they’re liable to make a mistake for something they don’t believe in, and we don’t want our customers to be confused.”
Giving evidence to a senate hearing straight from the paddock, AgForce cattle president style:
Love the lengths producers go to have their say. Here’s Will, our @AgForceQLD cattle board president taking time out of his day to present to the Senate Inquiry into the definitions of meat and other animal products
Good job mate 👏 pic.twitter.com/YGhaiiMCUq
— Adam Coffey (@AdamCoffeyNT) November 8, 2021
Why use another product’s attributes to market your own? From a marketing point of view, why would you use another products’ attributes in your marketing descriptions, Senator Susan McDonald asked. In response, Emily Pullen, whose company Jim’s Jerky competes daily in the bare-knuckle retail fight that is the fast moving consumer goods market, said it was a relatively easy short cut for these products to use animal-based descriptors to save the work of establishing a new category. “I think having alternative proteins is so important in the marketplace to allow consumers choice,” she said. “…but have them very clearly labelled for what they are… don’t use the short cut of a value proposition that doesn’t’ belong to the product that is in the packet”.
Plant-based farmers against animal descriptors on plant-proteins: The question of whether the average person would support the idea of products made from plants being labelled with specific animal descriptors emerged on several occasions. Graingrowers CEO David McKeon said farmers were excited by the tremendous growth opportunities ahead for both feed grain and pulse crops. Farmers did not want to see two great Australian industries being pitched against each other and butting heads, he said. “But when you bring it back to the basic question of should you be allowed to label plant-based products with an animal based descriptor or an animal picture, the vast majority of farmers that I speak to say no, that doesn’t quite pass the pub test.”
Also invoking the pub test, Australian Oilseeds Federation CEO Nick Goddard agreed that descriptors such as beef, chicken and pork and images of livestock should not be allowed to be used on plant-based product. “I would say as a pub test around the counter, most people would not find it palatable, no pun intended, that terms identifying a species be used alongside or to help brand a plant protein-based product.”
No evidence plant-based products harming livestock products: Katie McRobert, general manager of the Australian Farm Institute, an independent body established by NSW Farmers in 2004 which conducts research into agricultural policy, told the inquiry the institute’s analysis has found no evidence to support concerns that existing definitions of alternative protein products are currently causing economic harm or impacting consumers’ health on any meaningful scale. Nor had economic analysis shown any fundamental supply/demand threat to the Australian animal proteins sector from alternative protein products in the coming decade, unless disruptive regulatory intervention forces a change in the market, which was considered unlikely.
Zero sum game: “We also caution proponents of zero-sum, dichotomous narratives in both animal and non-animal protein camps that cultivation of an ‘us versus them’ mindset creates consumer mistrust which detrimentally affects both market segments,” the AFI said in its submission to the inquiry.
Not a “war”: Susan McDonald questioned the characterisation of the debate as a war between two proteins. “We keep raising whether or not the plant-based or animal-based industries are attacking each other, that is certainly not been my sense. This is not about mutual destruction between the industries, this inquiry is about providing clarity for definitions around what you can say about the product.” Senator McDonald said gauged consumer opinion on the issue wherever she travelled and said, “I can’t find one person who says that makes sense to me, call it roast pork if it is not roast pork”.
Food Frontier/Alternative Proteins Council relationship under scrutiny: Food Frontier is a registered charity which has produced several reports promoting alternatives to animal-based proteins and describes itself as an “independent think tank”. The inquiry heard that Food Frontier also funds the secretariat of the Alternative Proteins Council, which is the advocacy body for the alternative proteins sector, leading to questions over Food Frontier’s stated independence and its role as a charity. “We’re very confident we’re acting within our charitable purposes,” Food Frontier CEO Thomas King responded. “It is not unusual for a non-commercial for a non-commercial entity to be involved in these discussions.”
‘Anti-livestock agenda’ denied: Homing in on a statement in Food Frontier’s constitution that one of its aims is to reduce consumption of animal products, and, noting Mr King’s past involvement with animal rights group Animal Australia, Senator McDonald asked Mr King if he had an anti-livestock agenda. “No, I don’t have an anti-livestock agenda”, he responded. Earlier he stated that with the global population set to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, the world will need “as much protein as we can produce”. He said he was not aware of any research showing that growth of the plant-based sector would come at the expense of any other sector. He told the inquiry that developing a code of practice is the logical and sensible next step, but cautioned against imposing red tape that he said could restrict Australia’s future competitiveness in the sector.
If very few products are using animal descriptors, why the fight to protect use of those terms? A number of supporters of current labelling standards pointed to an earlier report released by Food Frontier suggesting that more than 250 plant based protein products are available on the market, but only a handful, less than 7 percent, actually use animal images or “unmodified animal meat terms”. One question this seems to raise, not asked yesterday, was this: if so few alternative meat brands are using terms like beef, chicken and seafood in their labelling, why is the sector fighting to be able to use them in their labelling? After all, as Food Frontier’s Thomas King said during his evidence, “the plant-based nature of the product is the selling point”.
Do plant-based protein manufacturers recognise they too have an environmental footprint? ASBF chair Mark Davie spoke in detail about changes in legislation in 2016 that led to current shortfalls in the food standards code when it came to labelling. He further noted that while the cattle industry was investing heavily to address its sustainability challenges, at the same time, some plant-based companies appeared to have no understanding that their own products also have an environmental footprint. “One manufacturer lists that animal agriculture is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and biodiversity loss,” he said. “For a manufacturer to have so little awareness of their own supply chain or the link between soy and deforestation is concerning, and how attacking the only broadscale, biodiverse production system that we have that can further enhance the environment, and, as Adam and Jacynta (Coffey) have been talking about is going to increase biodiversity, I don’t understand.”
Where is the inquiry headed? There is still at least one more hearing to go, chair Susan McDonald stated, which is also likely to hear from the two biggest retailers of meat and alternative proteins, Woolworths and Coles. The committee is currently slated to present its report and recommendations by the end of February 2022. What those recommendations will be remains to be seen. For its part, one of Australia’s largest cattle companies, Consolidated Pastoral Company, has offered its own guidance on what the recommendations should contain, suggesting they include clear guidance that the food labelling regulatory framework be reformed to prevent the misuse of animal product related descriptors and livestock images on the labelling of plant-based substitute products.