The food environment is changing. Let’s not confuse true and fair labelling with market protectionism
The business of alt-protein, plant-based, animal product alternatives is booming. Food options that are better for the planet, animals and our health are incredibly compelling and a raft of new products are quickly developing to meet this growing interest. But like many disruptive industries, the entrance of new players have riled up industry incumbents and raised questions as to what these products should be called and how they should be regulated.
In America, we’ve seen several states attempt and succeed at banning the word ‘meat’ on meat alternative products, while in France, a farmer turned politician recently passed a law preventing meat-replacements from calling their products ‘bacon’, ‘mince’ or ‘sausages’. These debates are now at Australia’s doorstep with the Forum on Food Regulation recently identifying the labelling of dairy and meat alternative as an issue to be looked into.
The dairy industry has been particularly active in raising the labelling debate, claiming that plant-based milk products are unfairly using the ‘milk’ label to name their products. In response, the Minister of Agriculture, Bridget McKenzie has indicated her support for labels to change, saying that ‘we need to be careful we don’t confuse the marketplace.’
Plant-based products present a compelling alternative for many people and it’s important that we approach this new industry with open minds. People buying almond milk are not being confused into thinking they are buying milk from a cow. As long as products clearly state the main ingredient of the product - which products like almond or soy milk do - we should respect that the general public can differentiate an almond from a cow.
A study conducted by the Plant-Based Foods Association in the US confirms that people are not confused. Their research found that 78% of cow’s milk drinkers agreeing that the world “milk” is the most appropriate term for products such as almond and soy milk.
Milk describes the functionality of a product - if a product looks like milk, is used as milk, and functions as milk, then it probably is milk and should be named as such. As long as milk-alternatives continue to disclose their primary ingredient, there is no issue of misleading labelling.
Despite the data and the lack of evidence showing consumer confusion, the dairy industry is intent that the term milk can only come from a lactating mammal. But this position is stuck in the past and ignores how people view and consume milk. On this basis, we would have grounds to call for other staple pantry items such as peanut butter and coconut milk to change their names too.
The reality is the food landscape is changing and the regulatory system needs to respond and adapt. Outdated and rigid standards of identify only stand to benefit industry incumbents and ignore how people use and understand key terms on food and beverage products.
Getting labelling right is critical. As the Government seeks to investigate the labelling of animal product alternatives, it is important that any decision on labelling is driven entirely by consumers and how people use these products. Otherwise we’ll be living in a world with supermarkets filled with ‘nut juice’, ‘coconut liquid’ or ‘peanut spread’ and consumers will be none the wiser.
Food Ministers will be meeting in August to discuss this issue.