The politics of labelling plant-based proteins

Thursday, 18 January, 2024

The politics of labelling plant-based proteins

A research team has systemically analysed the Senate Inquiry into Definitions of Meat and Other Animal Products with implications for the recent moves by Australian regulators to approve cultivated meat. The team comprises Dr Hope Johnson from the QUT School of Law and her research team, Melbourne Law School Professor Christine Parker and QUT researcher Dr Brodie Evans.

According to Johnson, a concern stakeholders carried was that alternative proteins were a threat to animal agriculture; however, over the course of the Senate Inquiry, stakeholders began to concede that plant-based proteins are not in competition with meat and dairy.

In Australia, these industries felt that labelling laws were the problem, and the best solution would be ensuring ‘consumer clarity’.

However, animal agriculture industries in various nations have resisted this and advocated for laws that restrict the use of meat and dairy terms on alternative protein product labels.

“Despite the lack of consumer complaints about the labelling of meat alternatives to the ACCC, most stakeholders — and the outcome of the Inquiry — supported the introduction of mandatory qualifiers for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, for example ‘plant-based burger’,” Johnson said.

She said the use of meat terms, such as “burger”, was supported here; however, in the US, the use of terms like burger on such products is more contested.

“Stakeholders also pushed for improved regulation of nutrition and sustainability claims, with the latter claims largely being unregulated by Australian food law and mostly left to consumer watchdogs,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, food labelling refers to all the tags, brands, marks, statements, representations, designs and descriptions on food and its packaging that is made or displayed to consumers when it is sold.

By law, front-of-pack labelling has been long required to accurately describe the nature and content of food being sold, while back-of-pack labelling must have safety and nutritional information.

“In contemporary times, however, food labelling is more than a way to convey basic information about a product.

“Rather, the food label is a very small but precious bit of terrain in which claims are staked over the quality and provenance of food with real implications for both the consumer and the whole food chain.

“Examples include the introduction of mandatory ‘interpretive’ nutrition labelling, such as traffic lights, to grab consumer attention and ‘nudge’ consumer choice, and in some jurisdictions mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods or foods containing nanoparticles,” Johnson said.

Typically, food labels incorporate quality and credence claims, such as religious certifications, fair trade, fair labour, environmental, health and animal welfare assurances.

Johnson said she and her colleagues would continue to study the approval of cultivated meat products in Australia as it shapes up to be the third country in the world to approve cultivated meat.

“Some other countries may well go another way. For example, Italy recently took a different direction by introducing a ban on cultivated meat,” Johnson said.

Regulators in Australia are currently calling for public submissions on a proposal to approve a lab-grown quail product from Australia startup Vow.

When submissions are closed, regulators will consider how to label these products.

“We expect to see more concerns from stakeholders about the potential for cultivated meat products to replace conventionally produced meat and dairy.

“But perhaps unlike the previous political debates on plant-based meat, this will not be resolved by conclusions that the products are not in competition.

“Likewise, the ongoing lack of proactive regulation regarding sustainability claims on food will probably be flagged by stakeholders.

“The environmental credentials of both meat and cultivated meat are complex to verify and giving the consumer a full picture of all the environmental impacts is difficult on a standard label,” Johnson said.

The study, “Don’t mince words”: analysis of problematizations in Australian alternative protein regulatory debates, has been published here.

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