Internationally, regulators are tussling with the issue of labelling traditional animal-based foods and their plant-based competitors. Phil Edmonds reports.

Recent regulatory moves by other countries to limit non-traditional food producers hijacking terminology associated with animal protein could soon be considered in New Zealand.

An update of the joint Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code has been proposed across the Tasman with implications for shop shelves in NZ, based on a sympathetic assessment of meat industry claims of unjust product labelling.

This might instinctively be seen as an early victory for those in the business of producing animal protein the traditional way. But when considering wider investment and government policy trends favouring the expansion of plant-based food production, not to mention consumer indifference to being ‘duped’ by vegan mince and the like, any such change in labelling laws might yet be a hollow victory for those wanting the supremacy of conventional sources of protein restored and unopposed.

Calls for bans on ‘fraudulent’ meat and dairy category branding have been made for some time now, but recent changes to labelling laws offshore is creating a precedent for others to follow. France led the way when it amended its Agriculture legislation to prohibit any product based on non-animal ingredients from featuring traditional meat and/or dairy terms on its label.

The ban is scheduled to come into force in October. Elsewhere, Turkey has banned the production and sale of vegan cheese alternatives that look like traditional dairy cheese and the Belgian government, following France’s lead, has been working on guidelines that would make it more difficult for vegetarian and vegan plant-based foods to refer to animal products.

Rule changes in far-off lands might otherwise be given cursory attention but this year a Senate committee across the ditch released findings on an inquiry into the state of meat category branding. It recommended, among other things, a review of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Food Standards Code be made to limit the use of named meat, seafood and dairy category brands. The committee shared concerns with the meat industry, which had agitated for the review, that plant-based protein manufacturers are dishonourably using terms that animal protein sectors have invested heavily in to distinguish their own products.

Wheels turn slowly in mammoth regulatory reviews, however the FSANZ Act is being modernised (the process began in 2020) and a Food Code change could be contemplated as part of this. This could be good news for those who believe that not only have the meat and dairy industries been robbed by plant-based newcomers, but that tighter rules will reinvigorate the appeal of animal protein.

It sounds like common sense finally prevailing. But… in all cases listed above, legislators have been stymied by challenges from plant-based manufacturing interests.

In the United States, advocates of the plant-based food sector have successfully prevented new rules applying in some states, while some high-profile producers of alternative meat products (such as Tofurky) have been victorious in fighting labelling laws. In 2020 the European Union tried to ban terminology such as ‘burger’, ‘steak’ or ‘sausage’ in relation to plant-based products, however this legal amendment was not supported by the European Parliament. And in July this year, France’s highest court halted its new law due to be enacted following a request from an alternative protein association.

All this speaks to the thorny challenge of balancing consumer interests. On one hand there is the rightful interest in protecting consumers from misleading labelling. On the other there are equally compelling arguments insisting consumers should have the freedom to access food in whatever form they demand, and that it is not obstructed by anti-competitive regulations.

The recent experience of NZ feta cheese manufacturers being told they won’t be able to label their product as such when the NZ-EU free trade agreement is ratified comes to mind. It is worth noting there is no research in NZ that suggests consumers are feeling tricked by plant-based mishmash being labelled as vegan mince, for example. A spokesperson for the NZ Food & Grocery Council says it has previously discussed the issue with FSANZ and the Commerce Commission.

“There’s no evidence so far that consumers are being misled. A consumer purchasing an Impossible Burger is unlikely to believe it’s genuine meat. No doubt issues like these are open to debate, but words such as ‘burger’ and ‘steak’ could be seen by many as generic words now commonly used by consumers to describe plant-based and meat products.

“As far as we could see from the Australian inquiry, there is no evidence of confusion. Both countries have legislation to deal with misleading representations in the Food Acts and the Fair Trading Acts. We doubt there is the basis to develop a standard along the lines proposed.”

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the momentum in the protein debate that may or may not be edging towards the protection of animal protein interests at the level of the supermarket shelf, is not being replicated at the production investment level, nor it could be said at the level of governmental policy.

The Ministry for Primary Industries-aligned primary sector think tank Te Puna Whakaaronui, which this year pitched to reframe NZ’s food sector opportunities, insisted “continued development of our natural food system must not come at the exclusion of New Zealand’s participation in the fast and accelerating world of modern foods, defined as plant-based, fermented and lab-grown products.” It also stated “Although our natural food systems are experiencing record financial returns, this is time-limited … In contrast, our fledgling modern foods sector presents nearly unlimited opportunity to participate in the food revolution over the coming decades.”

And while the Australian Senate committee review referred to earlier was quite forthright in the need to bring plant-based producers to account for unfair use of animal protein terminology, in the very next breath it recommended that Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment “support investment opportunities into the plant-based alternative product sector’s manufacturing infrastructure to foster competitiveness and market opportunities”. It also advised “the plant-based protein product sector is supported to contribute to the Ag2030 goal of achieving a $100 billion agricultural sector by 2030.”

As with challenges associated with balancing consumer interests, this speaks to a difficulty in managing the arguably contradictory interests of plant-based and animal protein producers. Like Australia, that tension is visible in NZ. A recent example was seemingly conflicting messages delivered by AgResearch. At the end of June, it publicised research that showed red meat held a nutritional advantage over highly processed plant-based products, that are formulated to mimic the taste and basic nutrient composition of meat. A few weeks later, AgResearch announced it was jointly funding the first ever NZ Chair in cellular agriculture, acknowledging that biotechnologies for producing animal protein-based foods without animals has the potential to significantly disrupt the traditional animal protein industry, and that it is extremely important for NZ to develop capability in cellular agriculture and exploit commercial opportunities.

AgResearch science group manager Stefan Clerens says there is plenty of room for both traditional and modern food production systems to co-exist and there is no reason why NZ can’t be successful in facilitating advances in both. The importance is about making sure investment in the science of cellular agriculture has a focus on what the consumer wants, and this means delivering products with functionality. But it doesn’t mean the person who will fill the role will be tasked with developing a product to take to market. It’s about generating more understanding about the processes and science behind the technology.

It’s difficult to dispute the fact that new, viable food production systems have evolved and there are credible reasons to believe they will continue to grow, and in so doing, threaten the growth prospects of conventional food production.

At the same time though, there’s enough evidence to dispel the possibility of a near-term takeover. Just last month Beyond Meat, one of the biggest US producers of plant-based meat substitutes cut its estimated revenue based on a fall in demand following some disheartening commercial trials. Among others retail food chains, McDonalds had decided not to go ahead with an immediate broader launch of Beyond Meat products. Similarly, the growth expectations of the large Swedish food company Oatly have been curbed after failing to convert more consumers from dairy to its plant-based alternative than anticipated.

The perceived reasons behind these developments are that the taste of the Beyond Meat and Oatly products aren’t quite on the mark. This undervalued factor in determining the appeal of meat and dairy alternatives is most likely the key reason holding back the march of modern foods. If NZ funding of the science of modern foods is aligned to what consumers want (tasty!), then issues around labelling might end up being neither here nor there.