Six out of every ten Australians would be ‘tricked’ by a lineup of plant-based meat alternatives, the nation’s largest livestock, poultry, and fishing industry groups say.
But the Australian consumer watchdog has already dismissed claims of supermarket subterfuge, saying those concerns are not fleshed out by real-world experiences.
On Friday, industry groups including the Red Meat Advisory Council, the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, and Seafood Industry Australia issued a joint statement, claiming local consumers are being fooled by the labelling of vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives.
The groups pointed to new research from Pollinate, which found 61% of Australian consumers falsely identified the contents of at least one of the five plant-based products shown to them.
Each of the five products were misidentified 25% of the time on average, the research states.
Some 56% of survey participants went on to say plant-based product packaging should not use animal imagery, or terms like ‘beef’ and ‘meat’.
“Australians are being misled by manufactured plant-based protein packaging, and we believe clearer labelling standards must be introduced to address this,” a group spokesperson said.
The statement is backdropped by a Senate inquiry into meat-free food labelling practices, conducted by the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport.
The high-profile inquiry promises to be a litmus test for Australia’s rapidly growing alternative protein industry, and could impact how those products are branded on shelves nationwide.
Complainants “fully aware” of what they were buying: ACCC
Yet not every stakeholder shares the view of the livestock sector.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), says just 11 of 564,000 messages it received between January 2020 and June 2021 related to confusing meat-alternative packaging or advertising.
And of those complaints, the majority were from meat and dairy industry consumers and stakeholders, who “were fully aware of what the relevant product was made of when viewing it for sale.”
“The ACCC has not received information that demonstrates that the labelling of plant-based substitute products is an issue causing consumer detriment,” the organisation said.
Those few complaints were unlikely to stand up in court under current legislation, the ACCC added.
“In each case we considered that a court would view the overall impression conveyed by the labelling of these products as unlikely to mislead an ordinary consumer.”
Pairing ginger beer with soy sausages
Beyond simple claims of consumer confusion, the inquiry’s terms of reference reflect a growing friction between Australia’s meat industries and the growing alternative protein sector, which hopes to become an accepted part of the national diet.
The inquiry is investigating the specific impact of plant-based products using terms like ‘meat’, ‘beef’, or ‘sausage’, which industry groups claims could dilute the ‘brand’ of Australian meat in domestic and overseas markets.
In its own inquiry submission, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), the independent authority which oversees the Food Standards Code in both nations, said there are certain “compositional requirements” for meat products like ‘sausage’, ‘meat pie’, and ‘cured meat’.
Those rules apply “unless the context makes clear this is not the intention,” the organisation said.
Using the example of ginger beer, which does not need to comply with the Code requirements for ‘regular’ beer given its ‘ginger’ context, FZANZ said “the above compositional requirements do not apply to meat analogue products labelled and sold as ‘meat-free sausage’, ‘vegetarian sausage’ or ‘soy sausage’.
“It is clear that such a product is not a sausage containing meat from animal sources.”
More than just lunch money
The findings of the inquiry promise to have major ramifications for both the traditional and alternative meat industries.
In its inquiry submission, Livestock SA said it was “concerned about the immediate and long-term social and economic impacts” of meat alternative branding, and the way its production could have a “potential negative knock-on impact on regional agricultural employment.”
Regardless of whether those concerns are borne out, the meat alternative industry is definitely muscling its way into the market.
v2food, backed by Hungry Jack’s founder Jack Cowin and the CSIRO, on Thursday revealed it has completed a $72 million funding round, bringing its value to $500 million.
For the traditional meat industry, those figures are food for thought.
Submissions to the Senate inquiry will close on August 13, with the Committee due to report in or before February 2022.