Senate Committee report recommends beefing up labelling regulation of plant-based protein products
01 June 2022
01 June 2022
On 24 February 2022, a Senate Committee released its report on the labelling and marketing of plant-based protein products. The report followed extensive lobbying by the meat and dairy industries and a Senate inquiry chaired by Liberal National Party Senator Susan McDonald, a former board member of Beef Australia. The inquiry generated significant interest from stakeholders on both sides of the issue, receiving 226 submissions in total.
The report proposes a new food regulatory framework, forming the view that the current framework is not suitable for the regulation of plant-based protein products.
Currently, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Code permits non-animal products to be labelled using animal-related terminology provided the context makes it clear the true nature of the product (for example, "plant-based" meat or "soy milk").
The ACCC, which oversees and enforces Australian consumer law, does not have any specific guidelines or codes applicable to plant-based products. It has previously expressed the view that regulatory changes were not required. In its submission to the inquiry, it reported that it had received very few complaints about consumers being misled by the labelling of plant-based products, and that most complaints had been raised by the meat or dairy sector.
Nevertheless, the Senate Committee expressed concern that consumers would be confused by the use of animal-related descriptors such as "meat", "beef", "chicken" and "prawn" and imagery on plant-based products, particularly where the products are placed by retailers in proximity to each other. The Committee warned of potential underreporting to the ACCC and referred to anecdotal evidence of mistaken purchases. Submissions on behalf of the plant-based sector emphasised that far from being misled, consumers consciously and deliberately purchased plant-based products precisely because they are not animal protein-based. As such, they did not consider any regulatory amendments were required.
Utility terms such as "burger", "mince", "sausage" and "steak" were not considered to be problematic because they describe the format and utility of a product rather than its composition.
The report recommends a mandatory regulatory framework to be developed in consultation with the traditional and plant-based protein sectors, the food service industry and retailers.
If such a framework were to be introduced, it is not yet clear what it would look like. It is however clear that the Senate Committee is advocating for a framework prohibiting use of animal-related terminology or imagery in relation to plant-based products.
The report also suggests alternative proposals and pathways forward:
The report recommends that the FSANZ Code be amended to include a definition of plant-based protein products and the minimum compositional requirements for such products.
The report also considers the emerging area of cultured meat products (which are produced using the cells of animals) and recommended that the mandatory regulatory framework be applicable to these products, in preparation for their entry into the Australian market.
The Australian Greens party issued a dissenting report largely rejecting the recommendations of the report. The Greens criticised the absence of reliable quantitative evidence and accused the National Party of Australia, which has close affiliations with the traditional agricultural industry, of having a predetermined outcome planned for the inquiry.
The Greens recommended that a voluntary framework should be developed in line with recommendations made by a separate industry group convened by the Minister for Agriculture.
The Senate Committee's report represents a strong push for mandatory regulation of plant-based protein products, in what is becoming a long and hard-fought battle between the animal and non-animal protein industries. The report has been surrounded by accusations of bias, including by the Greens.
However, the Senate Committee and the Greens were united in recognising that the plant-based protein sector could play a valuable role in the Australian economy. The report recommends further investment in pursuit of the Australian Government's target of a $100 billion agricultural sector by 2030.
The Australian Government is now considering the report and will decide whether any of the recommendations should be implemented.
Authors: Anita Cade, Partner and Ray Cheng, Lawyer.