Senate investigation, labeling regulation of plant origin

A regulatory framework, a review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and new Australian Code of Food Standards New Zealand (FSANZ) guidelines are three of nine recommendations made by the Federal Senate inquiry into herbal labeling.

The inquiry was launched in June last year by Queensland Senator Susan McDonald, who said manufacturers of non-meat products should come up with their own product names rather than forgo protein labeling animal.

Pressure from animal protein industry groups prompted the investigation, arguing that the plant protein industry’s use of animal protein descriptors, images and utilitarian terms is confusing among consumers and “piggybacks” on the reputation of the red meat industry. to please consumers.

The investigation was launched despite the existence of a working group on the labeling and marketing of plant alternatives which was set up by the Minister of Agriculture in September 2020. This group was composed of representatives of agriculture, retail and vegetable sector and was chaired by the National Federation of Farmers.

The discussion paper that followed outlined various approaches for industry and regulators. Although the working group did not come to a consensus decision on the way forward, most members agreed that a voluntary approach is the preferred option and that more work should be done to explore this.

In the investigation report Do not mince your words: definitions of meat and other animal products, McDonald’s said food categories had become unclear and plant protein claims were not clearly regulated.

“Organic, free range and other farmed product categories are overseen by the Australian Consumer Law, while nutrition and composition labeling is overseen by the Department of Health. However, the Ministry of Health does not have corresponding police or investigative powers,” she said.

She acknowledged that the perception of competition between traditional and plant-based products was not borne out by consumption or consumer trends, and that it was in Australia’s interest to develop both sectors.

Although consumers are “increasingly knowledgeable and educated” about ingredient and nutrition labeling, and although most plant-based protein manufacturers use clear labeling and terms, “there is no labeling standards to ensure that words or images of animals are not used on plants. packaging of protein-based products”.

The solution to this was nine recommendations on the regulation of the plant-based protein industry, although the industry is already subject to compliance with Australian Consumer Law and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act.

The recommendations

Recommendation 1: the Australian government is developing a mandatory regulatory framework for the labeling of plant-based protein products, in consultation with representatives from the traditional and plant-based protein sectors, the food service industry and retailers.

Recommendation 2: the ACCC is reviewing the placement of plant-based protein products in retailer stores, including online platforms.

Recommendation 3: the Australian government is ensuring that a mandatory regulatory framework applies to cultured meat products, with a view to the introduction of these products into the Australian market.

Recommendation 4: As part of its ongoing review and modernization of the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Act 1999, the FSANZ has launched a review, in consultation with industry, of section 1.1.1—13(4 ) of the FSANZ Code and recommended exempting its application to named meats, seafood and dairy category brands.

Recommendation 5: Upon conclusion and implementation of the FSANZ Code Review, FSANZ is developing guidelines to inform labeling and marketing practices for manufacturers of plant-based protein products.

Recommendation 6: the ACCC is developing a national disclosure standard that defines and limits the use of meat grade marks to animal protein products. This standard should include guidance on the use of livestock imaging for the labeling and marketing of plant protein products.

Recommendation 7: the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE), in partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is reviewing measures to:

  • build the capacity of the plant-based protein products industry to source from Australian-grown produce; and
  • support investment opportunities in the manufacturing infrastructure of the Australian plant-based alternatives sector to foster competitiveness and market opportunities in the international marketplace.

Recommendation 8: DAWE ensures that the plant-based protein products sector is supported to contribute to the Ag2030 goal of achieving a $100 billion agricultural sector by 2030.

Recommendation 9: as part of its review of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1999, FSANZ is launching consultations with stakeholders on amending the FSANZ Code to include:

  • a definition of vegetable protein products; and
  • minimum compositional requirements for vegetable protein products.

The Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) said the findings were a “common sense approach”. Independent chairman John McKillop said it was a “great achievement” for the red meat and other traditional protein sectors.

“The survey’s recommendations will go a long way towards restoring truth in labeling for Australian consumers, while ensuring that the manufactured animal and plant protein industries can compete on equal terms,” ​​McKillop said.

For the RMAC, the report put an end to the consumer confusion debate, concluding that “Australian families are being deceived by misleading labels and descriptions used by herbal companies”.

“It is now abundantly clear that Australia’s regulatory and enforcement framework urgently needs strengthening. The practice of denigrating meat products through misleading advertisements must be stopped,” McKillop said.

Backlash from the Greens

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens’ dissenting report took a somewhat different approach, broadly rejecting the recommendations and the way the inquiry was being conducted.

“It was a significant departure from Senate protocol, with the use of a legislation committee chaired and dominated by the government, for an investigation that should have gone through a committee of references.

“This suggests that the nationals had planned from the outset a predetermined outcome for the investigation, regardless of the evidence provided to the committee,” he said.

Greens committee member Peter Whish-Wilson is not holding back.

“Trumpian-style in their effort, the Nationals delivered an analysis of this investigation with the eloquence and intellectual vacuity of John Belushi shouting ‘food fight’ in Animal House.

Whish-Wilson pointed out that throughout the investigation, no reliable quantitative evidence was presented showing a systemic problem with the labeling of herbal products.

The inquiry heard there was no quantitative, peer-reviewed evidence that consumers are confused by these labels and mistakenly buy plant-based protein products.

A study by Colmar Brunton found that 91% of customers “never mistakenly bought a plant-based product thinking it was a meat-based product, or vice versa”. Of the nine percent who mistakenly bought the wrong product, the study found they were more likely to be vegetarians or vegans.

Similarly, Woolworths Group conducted a nationwide survey of 5,700 customers in March 2021 and found that 7% said they had purchased a herbal product by mistake. Woolworths also reported that 62% of customers sometimes buy plant-based protein products, with the majority of sales coming from new customers in the category.

The group said that while it had seen 40% year-on-year growth in plant-based protein sales, it was still significantly below red meat sales by a factor of 60 to 1.

The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) said there had been no concrete evidence of consumer confusion beyond anecdotal reports. AFI representative Katie McRobert said the Institute found no evidence of systemic consumer confusion.

Similarly, the ACCC said it received 17 reports of herbal labeling from January 2020 to June 2021 out of a total of 564,000 contacts. He said most of the complaints were not about misleading, but about the legality of using animal-related images or words on the label, with some of those complaints coming from industry bodies. meat.

The ACCC said its view was “that a court would consider the general impression conveyed by the labeling of these products to be unlikely to mislead an ordinary consumer”.

The RMAC expressed concern about the effectiveness of the ACCC’s enforcement of the ACL, citing a comparison with the number of lawsuits the Commission has brought against the livestock sector.

The Alternative Proteins Council (APC) said the committee’s recommendations for “restrictive regulations” were unjustified based on the balance of evidence presented at the inquiry.

“While the evidence demonstrating that the current labeling is fit for purpose appears in abundance in the Committee’s report, the Committee’s findings are in direct opposition, relying on an overbearing approach that would have broad implications for a growing sector. “, did he declare.

“The evidence presented at the investigation – from six public hearings and 226 written submissions – demonstrated: no substantial evidence of consumer confusion about the labeling of herbal products, no negative economic impact suffered by the red meat sector due to the emerging plant-based sector, and no market failure resulting from the current labeling of plant-based products to justify the regulatory intervention proposed in the report.

Members of the committee were Senators McDonald (Nationals, Chairman), Glenn Sterle (ALP, Deputy Chairman), Alex Antic (LP, South Australia), Malarndirri McCarthy (ALP, Northern Territory), Greg Mirabella (LP, Victoria ), Peter Whish-Wilson (Australian Greens, Tasmania) and Gerard Rennick (LP, Queensland).

Norman D. Briggs