A new Senate inquiry on food labelling isn’t just about vegan ‘meat’ – it’s about the future of Australia’s livestock industry

  • Australian red meat producers and the plant-based alternative industry are squaring up before a landmark Senate inquiry into food labelling.
  • The new inquiry will hear arguments over the naming of plant-based products, and whether they can use the term ‘meat’ in Australia.
  • But far more is at stake than simple naming rights, with the inquiry setting the stage for a major battle between industry titans.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australia’s red meat industry and major players in the ‘alternative protein’ market are trading blows before a landmark Senate inquiry into food labelling, which threatens to stop plant-based ‘meat’ producers from even using the word.

But the inquiry goes far beyond simple naming rights, foreshadowing further battles between Australia’s $28.5 billion red meat industry and competitors who believe they’re producing the food of the future.

On Wednesday, Queensland LNP Senator Susan McDonald announced the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee will investigate the “potential impairment” of local red meat producers by companies which produce plant-based alternatives.

The inquiry will hear if plant-based producers, like rising stars v2food and long-time manufacturer Sanitarium, are confusing consumers and damaging Australian meat’s overall brand by using terms like ‘meat’, ‘sausage’, or ‘bacon’ to describe their products.

McDonald, who once owned a butcher’s shop, said the nation’s cow, pig, sheep, and goat farmers collectively invest “hundreds of millions of dollars each year to develop and enhance the intellectual property and benefits of red meat in Australia, and it’s important that these investments are protected.”

“If you prefer tofu over T-bone, then you go for it,” she added.

“But forget the ethics of eating animal products, this is about protecting a highly valuable industry and also providing a clear distinction between the real thing and the alternatives so consumers know exactly what they’re getting.”

Industry organisations have backed McDonald’s inquiry, arguing that Australian consumers are being deliberately deceived by plant-based products lining the fridges of their nearest supermarket.

“Some plant-based protein companies are trying to piggyback off the reputation of Australian beef by causing confusion,” said Cattle Council of Australia president Markus Rathsmann.

“This inquiry will take a good, hard look at whether it’s fair to call a product something like ‘no beef, beef’ when there’s no beef in it.”

The Australian Meat Industry Council CEO Patrick Hutchinson welcomed the inquiry, and its focus on naming rights. The inquiry should determine if “labelling of manufactured plant proteins does not constitute a point of confusion for consumers, and that only genuine meat products are labelled as such,” he said.

“These products are not lamb or any type of meat and need to be labelled accordingly,” added Stephen Crisp, CEO of Sheep Producers Australia.

Some producers are tackling the assertion head-on. Kjetil Hansen, founder of meat alternative company Deliciou, said the inquiry “is insulting to people’s intelligence to claim that they will confuse plant-based chicken with a chicken that ate plants despite clear labelling on the products.”

Other firms, sensing the heat of a Senate grilling, have proposed voluntary guidelines on meat alternative labelling.

“These guidelines, consistent with Australian Consumer Law, aim to ensure both consumers and manufacturers have guidance for clear and accurate labelling,” said Nick Hazell, CEO and founder of v2food.

While lawmakers are yet to determine if consumers are being tricked, it is hard to ignore the way plant-based alternatives have sought supermarket real estate alongside the real deal. On Monday, international power player Beyond Meat celebrated the arrival of its meat-free burgers to Woolworths — where they will be displayed in the meat aisle.

Should the inquiry find in the red meat industry’s favour, Australia could join nations like France in banning the use of terms like ‘steak’ or ‘sausage’ for non-meat products.

Yet the debate is about far more than food industry upstarts cutting someone’s lunch.

Spooking the herd

The inquiry will also field submissions regarding the “health implications of consuming heavily manufactured protein products”; whether other Australian animal-based products are impacted by current naming conventions; and, tellingly, the “long-term social and economic impacts of the appropriation of Australian meat category branding” on businesses and workers in rural Australia.

The clue is in ‘long-term’. With an eye to the future, meat producers are now taking the threat of a rapidly maturing meat-alternative industry more seriously than ever before. More change is coming, according to Hungry Jack’s founder and v2food investor Jack Cowin.

“If I put to you that there will be [meat alternatives] produced that taste at least equal to or better than the existing meat product, but at a considerably lower price than animal produced meat, with significant health, environmental and animal cruelty gains, common sense tells me, we will see the transition to plant and cell-based meat products over the next ten to twenty years,” Cowin told the Global Food Forum in Sydney earlier this month.

Far from a total takeover, Cowin suggested the industries could eventually work side-by-side to address the planet’s growing protein consumption and climate constraints.

That conciliatory approach is also favoured by Food Frontier, a not-for-profit think tank focused on Australia’s meat alternative industry.

Responding to McDonald’s announcement, Food Frontier CEO Thomas King said, “this Inquiry must avoid considering the emergence of new proteins as an ‘either – or’ scenario; it’s a scenario where every industry will need to expand and work together to ensure the world’s nutritional needs are met.”

Vast opportunities await for Australian grain farmers, King added, saying they stand to “benefit from the plant protein industry’s growth” at home and abroad.

Regardless, the chance of Australia’s meat industry teaming up with plant-based producers seems vanishingly slim. Some opposition to plant-based alternatives has even taken on a religious aspect.

In what Farm Online called “the most talked about event” at the Beef Australia 2021 conference, one guest speaker reportedly suggested that Sanitarium — a company wholly owned by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which advocates for a plant-based diet — uses “gullible” vegans and vegetarians as “foot soldiers for the processed food industry and religious ideology.”

“We’re not saying ‘don’t eat meat’,” a Sanitarium spokesperson told Business Insider Australia. “Everybody has a choice.”

Submissions to the inquiry close on July 30.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this report incorrectly characterised Food Frontier as a lobbying group. It is a think tank focused on alternative proteins.