Plant-based ‘alternatives’: a meaty debate

Opinion editorial by James Jackson, President of NSW Farmers 

From mock duck to vegan burgers, the imitation game of the “fake meat” sector is strong. The proliferation of plant-based products has sparked significant debate on labelling conventions and even the health benefits of meat ‘alternatives’ compared to their animal-based counterparts. Now, a Senate inquiry is set to delve into the definitions and branding of meat in Australia, focusing on the descriptors used by manufactured plant protein companies to market their products using labels that reference animal flesh. 

The inquiry has brought a sigh of relief across the Australian red meat sector. The significance of the inquiry will also be felt in sectors such as dairy, which has contended with a sharp increase in plant- and nut- based milk ‘alternatives’. NSW Farmers has spearheaded calls for labelling on these ‘alternatives’ to be truthful and transparent, and will utilise the upcoming inquiry to reinforce this important messaging. 

NSW Farmers is not opposed to production of alternative proteins. Rather, we recognise the important role these foods will have in meeting global demand for protein as populations continue to rise. Additionally, the burgeoning alternative protein field will likely bring new opportunities for farmers across the state. We simply urge the adoption of accurate labelling for the sake of consumers and fair competition. 

Consumers should be clearly informed of the nutritional offerings of meat or milk substitutes in their burger or coffee. Typically, plant or nut based ‘alternatives’ have undergone a degree of processing and a range of ingredients and additives are included to get to their final form and to be of equivalent nutrient profile, in comparison to whole meat or milk products. 

As well as transparency, truthful labelling can foster fair competition between traditional animal products and plant-based manufactured proteins. Concerns have been raised in the farming community around the use of terms synonymous with livestock production on unrelated products. Market recognition of household terms such as ‘milk’, ‘meat’, ‘beef’ or ‘chicken’ has been leveraged to promote plant-based products, despite their disparate nutritional makeup and taste. 

NSW Farmers will be making a submission along with the National Farmers’ Federation to the inquiry. The Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) will lead with a submission on behalf of Australia’s red meat sector, in collaboration with Australia’s pork and chicken meat industries. Submissions close 31 July 2021, and contributions will be sought from the relevant NSW Farmers commodity committees and the Agricultural Science committee. The core focus of our submission will be on the need for clear labelling of alternative protein products, including blended products.