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The politics of alternative proteins studied through notions of competition, definitions, labeling

January 22, 2024

A study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researchers has looked at the politics of alternative proteins (new meat alternatives) in Australia as lawmakers grapple with notions of competition, definitions and labeling.

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, systematically analyzed the Senate Inquiry into Definitions of Meat and Other Animal Products with implications for the recent moves by Australian regulators to approve cultivated meat.

"A common concern among stakeholders was that alternative proteins were a threat to animal agriculture," Dr Johnson said. "But this shifted over the course of the Senate Inquiry, as stakeholders began to concede that plant-based alternative proteins were not necessarily in competition with meat and dairy."

Dr Johnson said that instead in Australia, both industries felt labeling laws were the problem—and the best solution would be to ensure "consumer clarity."

The research is published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values.

"Animal agricultural industries across various nations have resisted this positioning in regulatory spaces by advocating for laws that restrict the use of meat and dairy terms on the labels of alternative proteins products," Dr Johnson said.

"Despite the lack of consumer complaints about the labeling 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.'

"However, the use of meat terms, such as 'burger,' was supported. In the USA, 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."

Dr Johnson said food labeling referred to all the tags, brands, marks, statements, representations, designs and descriptions on food and its packaging and made or displayed to consumers when it is sold.

"The law has long required that front-of-pack food labeling accurately describe the nature and content of the food being sold. The law also requires certain 'back of pack' safety and nutritional information," she said.

"In contemporary times, however, food labeling 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 labeling, such as traffic lights, to grab consumer attention and 'nudge' consumer choice, and in some jurisdictions mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods or foods containing nanoparticles.

"Food labels also typically incorporate a plethora of voluntary but widely utilized quality and credence claims, such as religious certifications (halal or kosher), fair trade, fair labor, environmental, health, and animal welfare assurances."

Dr Johnson said she and her colleagues will continue to study the approval of cultivated meat products in Australia.

"Australia is shaping up to be the third country in the world, behind Singapore and the USA, 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."

She said regulators in Australia are currently calling for public submissions on its proposal to approve a cultivated meat product – a lab-grown quail product from the start-up Australian company Vow.

"Once submissions are closed, they will consider –among other thing – how to label these new food products," Dr Johnson said.

"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 on-going 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."

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

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