A regulatory framework, a review by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and new Food Standards Australia New Zealand Code (FSANZ) guidelines are three of the nine recommendations made by the federal senate inquiry into plant-based labelling.
The inquiry was launched in June last year by Queensland senator Susan McDonald, who said the makers of non-meat products had to come up with their own product names rather than trading off animal protein labelling.
Pressure from animal protein industry groups was the impetus for the inquiry, arguing that plant-based protein sector’s use of animal protein descriptors, images and utility terms cause confusion amongst consumers, and that it was “piggybacking” off the reputation of the red meat industry to appeal to consumers.
The inquiry was instigated despite an existing plant-based alternatives labelling and marketing working group that was set-up by the Minister of Agriculture in September 2020. That group had representatives from agriculture, retail, and the plant-based sector and was chaired by the National Farmers’ Federation.
The subsequent discussion paper outlined various approaches for the industry and regulators. While the working group didn’t come to a consensus decision about the preferred way forward, most members agreed a voluntary approach is the preferred option and more work should be done to explore that.
In the inquiry’s report Don’t mince words: definitions of meat and other animal products, McDonald said food categories had become blurred and claims on plant-based proteins not clearly regulated.
“Organics, free-range and other raising claim categories are overseen by Australian Consumer Law, while nutritional and compositional labelling are overseen by the Department of Health. However, the Department of Health does not have matching policing or investigative powers,” she said.
She acknowledged that the perception of competition between traditional and plant-based was not borne out in consumption or consumer trends, and that it was in Australia’s interest to grow both sectors.
Even though consumers are “increasingly well informed and educated” on ingredient and nutrition labelling, and while most plant-based protein manufacturers use clear labelling and terms, “there are no labelling standards to ensure that animal terms or images are not used on plant-based protein product packaging”.
The solution to that was nine recommendations on regulating the plant-based protein industry, despite the industry already being subject to complying with Australian Consumer Law and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act.
Recommendation 1: the Australian Government develop a mandatory regulatory framework for the labelling of plant-based protein products, in consultation with representatives from the traditional and plant-based protein sectors, food service industry and retailers.
Recommendation 2: the ACCC review the placement of plant-based protein products in retailers’ stores, including online platforms.
Recommendation 3: the Australian Government ensure the application of a mandatory regulatory framework is applicable to cultured meat products, in preparation for the introduction of those products onto the Australian market.
Recommendation 4: as part of its current review and modernisation of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1999, FSANZ initiate a review in consultation with industry, of section 1.1.1—13(4) of the FSANZ Code and recommend exempting its application to named meat, seafood and dairy category brands.
Recommendation 5: on conclusion and application of the review of the FSANZ Code, FSANZ develop guidelines to inform labelling and marketing practices for manufacturers of plant-based protein products.
Recommendation 6: the ACCC develop a National Information Standard that defines and restricts the use of meat category brands to animal protein products. This standard should include guidance on the use of livestock imagery for labelling and marketing of plant-based protein products.
Recommendation 7: the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), in partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, examines measures to:
- strengthen the plant-based protein product sector’s capacity to source its products from Australian grown produce; and
- support investment opportunities into the Australian plant-based alternative product sector’s manufacturing infrastructure to foster competitiveness and market opportunities on the international market.
Recommendation 8: DAWE ensure the plant-based protein product 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, initiates consultations with stakeholders about amending the FSANZ Code to include:
- a definition of plant-based protein products; and
- minimum compositional requirements for plant-based protein products.
The Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) said the findings were a “common-sense approach”. Independent chair John McKillop said it was a “great outcome” for the red meat and other traditional protein sectors.
“The Inquiry’s recommendations will go a long way in helping to restore truth in labelling for Australian consumers, while ensuring animal and manufactured plant-based protein industries can compete on a level playing field,” McKillop said.
For the RMAC, the report put to bed the debate on consumer confusion, concluding that, “Australian families are being deceived by misleading labels and descriptions used by plant-based companies”.
“It’s now abundantly clear that Australia’s regulatory and enforcement framework requires urgent strengthening. The practice of denigrating meat products through misleading advertising must be stopped,” McKillop said.
Pushback from the Greens
Meanwhile, the dissenting report by the Australian Greens had a somewhat different take, largely rejecting the recommendations and how the inquiry was run.
“It was a significant departure from Senate protocol, with the use of a legislation committee chaired and dominated by the government, for an inquiry that should have gone through a references committee.
“This suggests the Nationals had a predetermined outcome planned for the inquiry from the outset, no matter what evidence was provided to the committee,” it said.
Greens committee member Peter Whish-Wilson doesn’t hold back.
“Trumpian-like in their endeavour, the Nationals have delivered an analysis of this inquiry with the eloquence and intellectual vacuity of John Belushi yelling “food fight” in Animal House.
Whish-Wilson pointed out that throughout the inquiry no reliable quantitative evidence was presented that showed a systemic problem with plant-based product labelling.
The inquiry heard there was no quantitative, peer-reviewed evidence that consumers are confused by these labels and mistakenly purchasing plant-based protein products.
Research by Colmar Brunton found 91 per cent of customers ‘have never mistakenly purchased a plant-based product thinking it was a meat-based counterpart, or vice versa’. Of the nine per cent who mistakenly purchased the wrong product, the study found ‘they were more likely to be vegetarian or vegan’.
Similarly, Woolworths Group conducted a nation-wide survey of 5700 customers in March 2021 and found seven per cent reported that they had purchased a plant-based product in error. Woolworths also reported 62 per cent of customers bought plant-based protein products sometimes, with the majority of sales from new customers to the category.
The Group said that while it had seen a 40 per cent year-on-year growth in plant-based protein sales, it was still significantly smaller than 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 had found no evidence of systemic confusion among consumers.
Similarly, the ACCC said it had 17 reports about plant-based labelling from January 2020 to June 2021 from a total of 564,000 contacts. It said most complaints were not about being misled, but on the legality of using animal-related images or words on the label, with some of those complaints coming from meat industry bodies.
The ACCC said its opinion was “a court would view the overall impression conveyed by the labelling of these products as unlikely to mislead an ordinary consumer”.
RMAC expressed its concerns about the effectiveness of the ACCC’s enforcement of the ACL, citing a comparison with the number of proceedings the Commission had made against the livestock sector.
The Alternative Proteins Council (APC) said the committee’s recommendations for “restrictive regulations” was unjustified based on the balance of the evidence presented to the enquiry.
“While evidence demonstrating current labelling is fit-for-purpose appears in abundance in the Committee’s report, the Committee’s conclusions are in direct opposition, relying on a heavy-handed approach that would have broad sweeping implications on a growing sector,” it said.
“Evidence presented to the Inquiry – from six public hearings and 226 written submissions – demonstrated: no substantive evidence of consumer confusion about plant-based product labelling, no adverse economic impact experienced by the red meat sector due to the emerging plant-based products sector, and no market failure arising from current plant-based product labelling to warrant the regulatory intervention proposed in the report.”
Committee members were senators McDonald (Nationals, chair), Glenn Sterle (ALP, deputy chair), 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).