On 15 June 2021, the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee (the committee) self-referred, under Standing Order 25 (2)(a)(v), an inquiry into the current state of meat category branding in Australia, with the following terms of reference:
The management by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment of the legislative and regulatory framework underpinning the compulsory levy investment into meat category brands as declared through the Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Act 1997, taking specific account of:
The potential impairment of Australian meat category brand investment from the appropriation of product labelling by manufactured plant-based or synthetic protein brands, including:
the use of manufactured plant-based or synthetic protein descriptors containing reference to animal flesh or products made predominately from animal flesh, including but not limited to “meat”, “beef”, “lamb”, and “goat”; and
the use of livestock images on manufactured plant-based or synthetic protein packaging or marketing materials.
The health implications of consuming heavily manufactured protein products which are currently being retailed with red meat descriptors or livestock images, including:
consideration of unnatural additives used in the manufacturing process; and
consideration of chemicals used in the production of these manufactured protein products.
The immediate and long-term social and economic impacts of the appropriation of Australian meat category branding on businesses, livestock producers and individuals across regional, rural and remote Australia, including:
the reliance upon imported ingredients;
the support of regional employment; and
the state and commonwealth taxation contribution from the Australian red meat and livestock sector.
The implications for other Australian animal products impaired from the appropriation of product labelling by manufactured plant-based or synthetic proteins.
The committee agreed to present its report on or before the end of February 2022. The report was subsequently tabled on 24 February 2022.
Conduct of the inquiry
The inquiry was advertised on the committee’s webpage, and the committee wrote to relevant Australian and state government departments and agencies seeking submissions. The committee also wrote to peak bodies, stakeholder groups, the business community, academics and research institutions inviting submissions. Details regarding the inquiry, and associated documents are available on the committee’s webpage.
In total, the committee received 226 submissions. A list of submissions is included at Appendix 1. Public submissions have also been published on the committee’s webpage.
The committee held six public hearings, all of which were held via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first hearing occurred on 7 September 2021, followed by two hearings on 16 and 17 September 2021. Further hearings were on 8 November 2021, and on 6 and 7 December 2021.
The committee would like to thank those organisations and individuals who provided written submissions to the inquiry. The committee would like to acknowledge and thank those stakeholders that participated in its public hearings. Your efforts greatly assisted the committee during the inquiry and in its deliberations.
Note on references
References in this report are to individual submissions as received by the committee, not to a bound volume. References to the committee Hansard are to the proof Hansard transcript. Page number may vary between the proof and the official Hansard transcript.
Structure of the report
This report consists of six chapters. This chapter provides a summary of existing definitions of meat and other animal products in Australian legislation. This chapter proceeds to outline Australia’s food regulatory system and Australian Consumer Law.
Chapter 2 considers evidence about consumers’ understanding of plant-based proteins. The Chapter seeks to determine whether consumers are confused by current labelling practices across the plant-based protein sector and the potential impact on the traditional protein market. This chapter also considers the cultured meat industry.
Chapter 3 considers in more detail the regulatory framework that governs the plant-based protein sector. Specifically, the Chapter looks at the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Code (FSANZ Code, the Code) in more detail, the Code’s application on plant-based products and the types of descriptors that are used by the sector.
Chapter 4 explores the proposed voluntary and mandatory pathways forward under Australian Consumer Law.
Chapter 5 looks at the opportunities presented by Australia’s protein sector, consisting of both traditional and plant-based protein products, to meet global demand. This chapter also considers the levies paid by the traditional protein sector, and potential adverse economic impacts resulting from the misappropriation of meat terminology by the plant-based protein sector.
Finally, chapter 6 considers matters related to the nutritional qualities of plant-based proteins and traditional protein products. This chapter reviews stakeholders’ concerns about claims made by the plant-based sector about its products’ nutritional value. Further, the assumptions made by consumers about those products’ nutritional equivalency to traditional meat and dairy products. This chapter also considers the environmental and animal welfare statements made by manufacturers of plant-based proteins about the traditional protein sector.
Definitions relevant to the scope of this inquiry
Definitions of meat and associated terminology exist across various Acts and regulations. These definitions play a vital role in the collection of levies, export controls and the regulations that govern domestic food consumption. A summary of these legislative instruments is detailed below.
Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Act 1997
The Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Act 1997 (AMLI Act) underpins the Australian Government’s compulsory levies of the red meat and livestock industries. Under the AMLI Act (and associated levy and charges Acts), the Australian Government has collected approximately $5 billion in revenue since the Act’s implementation. The AMLI Act applies the following definitions for meat and meat products:
meat means the fresh or preserved flesh of cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, goats or other animals prescribed for the purposes of this definition, and includes meat products, meat by-products and edible offal, but does not include meat of a kind declared by the regulations to be, for the purposes of this Act, unfit for human consumption.
meat product means food prepared from or containing meat, and includes canned meat.
Export Control (Meat and Meat Products) Rules 2021
More prescriptive definitions of meat category brands exist under the Export Control (Meat and Meat Products) Rules 2021 (Meat and Meat Products Rules), for the purposes of the Export Control Act 2020 (Export Control Act). Under the Meat and Meat Products Rules, ‘prescribed meat and meat products must not be exported from Australian territory unless the conditions prescribed by [the legislative] instrument are complied with’. The following meat and animal definitions apply:
beef means meat derived from:
a female bovine animal; or
a castrated male bovine animal; or
an entire male bovine animal showing no evidence of secondary sexual characteristics.
pork means meat derived from:
a female porcine animal showing no evidence of milk secretion; or
a male porcine animal showing no evidence of secondary sexual characteristics.
goat, when used in a trade description, means meat derived from a caprine animal.
lamb means meat derived from an ovine animal that:
is under 12 months of age; or
does not have any permanent incisor teeth to wear.
meat means any part of an animal (including an animal carcase and offal) that is slaughtered other than in a wild state.
veal means meat derived from a female, castrated male or entire male bovine animal:
that shows no evidence of eruption of permanent incisor teeth; and
the carcase of which is not more than 150 kg by reference to hot dress carcase weight; and
that, in the case of a male animal, shows no evidence of secondary sexual characteristics.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) is responsible for enforcement of the Export Control Act. It noted that exporters are responsible to ensure products comply with importing country requirements, including labelling provisions. Should product not apply, they will be amended by the importer.
Plant-based protein definitions
Throughout this inquiry, there were varied terms used to describe plant-based protein products. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) use the terms meat and dairy analogue, with the term dairy analogue defined under the FSANZ Code as ‘derived from legumes, cereals, nuts, seeds, or a combination of these ingredients’. No definition is available for meat analogue products under the Code.
Other descriptors used also include ‘plant-based alternative proteins’ or ‘manufactured plant proteins’. For the purposes of this report, the terminology used to describe both meat and dairy alternatives is ‘plant-based products’, with the term ‘plant-based proteins’ used specifically for plant-based products that replicate traditional meat products. The committee also acknowledges the categories are not mutually exclusive, with some food products containing both plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins, often referred to as ‘blended products’.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand
The food regulation system consists of laws, policies, standards and processes that are designed to ensure the safety of food goods. Responsibility for ensuring food safety is coordinated by FSANZ and shared across national, state and local governments, with different roles fulfilled across jurisdictions, including enforcement.
FSANZ is an independent authority established under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1999 (FSANZ Act). FSANZ governs, develops and maintains Australia and New Zealand’s food regulation system that protects the health and safety of consumers, as well as coordinating food surveillance and food recall systems. It is governed by a Board that consist of specialists from both countries.
The joint food regulation system is underpinned by the Food Regulation Agreement (FRA). The FRA is an inter-governmental agreement between all Australian governments that have committed to a national system of food regulation (agreed to in November 2000). The FRA sets out a number of objectives shared across Australia’s jurisdictions, such as:
providing safe food controls to protect consumers;
reducing the regulatory burden on the food sector;
harmonising Australia’s domestic and export food standards, as well as international food standards;
providing a consistent regulatory environment across Australia through the development of agreed policy, standards and enforcement procedures; and
supporting the shared efforts by Australian and New Zealand to harmonise food standards.
New Zealand is not a signatory of the FRA; instead, Australian and New Zealand governments in 1995 signed a Joint Food Standards Treaty that sets out the shared food regulatory system. The overall goal of the treaty is to ‘reduce unnecessary barriers in trade, to adopt a joint system of food standards, to provide for timely development, adoption and review of food standards and to facilitate sharing of information’.
Food Ministers’ Meeting and Food Regulation Standing Committee
The Food Ministers’ Meeting (Food Ministers) consists of ministers from across state, territory, Australian and New Zealand governments, who consider and approve amendments to the food regulatory system. Food Ministers review proposals by FSANZ to amend the FSANZ code. As part of this process, Food Ministers can request that ‘FSANZ review its decision to approve a standard or variation to a standard’.
The Food Regulation Standing Committee (FRSC) supports the work of the Food Ministers’ Meeting. This role is fulfilled by coordinating policy advice, ensuring the food regulatory system is consistently implemented and enforced across jurisdictions, advising on strategic issues and the operation of the forum.
Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code
Food standards are developed and maintained by the FSANZ Code. The Code establishes the ‘legal requirements for food produced or imported for sale in Australia and New Zealand’.
The Code ‘does not have any legal effect of itself’, nor does FSANZ play a role in its enforcement. Rather, the FRA enables the adoption of the Code into State or Territory law, with government agencies and local councils from each jurisdiction responsible for its application, interpretation and enforcement. Enforcement of the Code at Australia’s border is the responsibility of the DAWE.
The development of food standards
FSANZ develops food standards in accordance with the FSANZ Act and Australian administrative law. This process is governed by principles of openness and transparency, with input sought from industry, public health sector, consumers and governments. An amendment to the Code can be proposed by any person through a submission to FSANZ. Alternatively, FSANZ can initiate its own review of the Code. A proposal to amend the Code must be subject to an evidence-based assessment in accordance with the FSANZ Act.
Section 18 of the FSANZ Act establishes the objectives that must be maintained when developing or reviewing food standards. These objectives include:
the protection of public health and safety;
a requirement for adequate information relating to food to ensure consumers can make informed choices; and
the prevention of misleading or deceptive conduct.
Regarding the prevention of misleading or deceptive conduct, FSANZ applies the principle that:
Statements on food labels and other claims must be truthful and must not mislead or deceive consumers in relation to the safety, composition, nutritional value or stated benefit of the food.
Amendments to food standards must be approved by the FSANZ Board. Once approved, those amendments are then referred to the Food Ministers’ Meeting for its consideration. Should the Food Ministers’ Meeting accept proposed standards, or variations to food standards, then the Code is amended to reflect the change and is adopted into Australian and New Zealand food laws. The committee was advised that an overall consensus is not required by the Food Ministers’ Meeting to amend the Code. However, FSANZ highlighted that importance of ‘agreement at large’ to justify the allocation of resources:
It doesn't have to be a 100 per cent consensus decision but for us to do work in this space we would want to ensure that there is agreement at large that this is an issue that warrants priority and resources allocated to that work to be dedicated in that space. And then there would need to be the same ministerial support to actually make any changes that could flow on from that.
Meat definitions under the Code
Under the Code, meat is defined in Standard 1.1.2—3 (and Standard 2.2.1—2) as:
whole, or part of the carcasses of any of the following animals, if slaughtered other than in a wild state:
buffalo, camel, cattle, goat, hare, pig, poultry, rabbit, or sheep
any other animal permitted for human consumption under a law of State, Territory or New Zealand; and
does not include:
foetuses or part of foetuses.
Under the Code, fish is defined as ‘a cold-blooded aquatic vertebrate or aquatic invertebrate including shellfish, but not including amphibians or reptiles’.
Other definitions for prescribed terms relevant to meat products with compositional requirements are considered further in this Chapter.
Dairy definitions are also applied under Code. The term milk is defined under the Code, in Section 1.1.1—3 and Standard 2.5.1—2, as:
the mammary secretion of milking animals, obtained from one or more milkings for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing, but excluding colostrums; or
such a product with phytosterols, phytostanols and their esters added.
Other definitions exist for butter, cheese, processed cheese, cream, yoghurt, and ice cream.
Plant-based products and the Code
Plant-based products (alternatively known as meat or dairy analogues) are ‘subject to the same Code requirements that apply to all foods for sale in Australia and New Zealand’. For this reason, plant-based products are subject to the same regulations that inform ‘the use of ingredients, processing aids, colourings, additives, nutritive substances, vitamins and minerals and novel foods’. The Code also regulates ‘the composition of some foods, such as dairy foods, meat and beverages’. The food regulatory system ensures no substance is included in the composition of a food product unless assessed by FSANZ, agreed to by the Food Ministers’ Meeting and subsequently incorporated into the Code.
In addition, the Food Ministers’ Meeting has endorsed a number of policy guidelines on how the ‘system should consider both regulatory (i.e. labelling) and non-regulatory measures’. These guidelines include information about labelling of food produced using new technologies, novel foods, the fortification of foods with vitamins and minerals, and the addition of other substances (other than vitamins and minerals).
Labelling, naming and compositional requirements
Plant-based products are also subject to the same labelling requirements specified by the Code. These requirements include ‘the naming of food, nutritional information, a statement of ingredients, allergen declarations and specific mandatory warning and advisory statements’.
The Code also establishes naming and representation requirements that specify that certain foods for sale are required to bear a label that includes the name of the food. The name applied to the label of a food product ‘must be sufficient to indicate the true nature of the food’. As such, a name can be used on a certain food product if it meets compositional requirements. Such compositional requirements exist for meat and meat products that are labelled as:
cured and/or dried meat flesh in whole cuts or pieces;
Should a consumer purchase a meat product listed above, they can likely assume that the product has met the compositional requirements specified by the Code ‘unless the context makes clear this is not the intention’, known as qualifying descriptors. A further requirement under the Code is that food is labelled with a prescribed name and a descriptor that sufficiently details the true nature of the food (Standard 1.2.2—2).
Qualifiers and the Code
Under section 1.1.1—13(4) of the Code, food and beverage products are permitted to utilise qualifying descriptors to ensure a consumer is aware of the true nature of a product and its intended use. The Code subsequently allows products like ‘ginger beer’, ‘vegan cheese’, ‘vegetable sausage’, ‘chicken-free chicken’ or ‘beef-free beef patty’ to be used on food labels. No restrictions are applied to terms such as burger, mince or steak that describe utility rather than its composition.
This amendment to the Code was made in March 2016, and at the time was largely considered with regard to dairy descriptors for plant-based juice products (analogue dairy), such as ‘soy milk, ‘almond milk’, ‘dairy-free cheese’ or ‘coconut yoghurt’.
Plant-based protein products and consumer protection
In addition to the Code, Australian consumers are protected under Australian Consumer Law (ACL) through the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and its enforcement of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, along with other state and territory consumer laws.
Plant-based products are regulated to the same standard as other foods sold or offered for sale in Australia and New Zealand. As such, manufacturers of these products are prohibited under ACL from:
…engaging in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive, or from making a representation that is false or misleading about the quality, quantity, composition or origin of products, including food products.
A 2006 guideline to the Trade Practices Act 1974 produced by the ACCC for the food and beverage industry emphasised that the key ‘do not mislead’ principle is guided by the ‘overall impression that a representation will leave in the mind of the consumer’. Should a consumer believe they are misled, then it is their responsibility to directly contact the business in the first instance, or a state and territory consumer protection agency or tribunal, an industry ombudsman, or the ACCC.
A determination as to whether ACL has been contravened is made by a court rather than the ACCC. A court will consider whether the labelling of a plant-based substitute product is misleading under ACL by assessing the ‘overall impression conveyed to a reasonable consumer by the labelling and packaging’ of the product. A court’s assessment will include contextual and circumstantial factors, such as ‘specific statements made and images used and their relative prominence, placement and size’. A product’s point of sale and placement within a supermarket may also be relevant. A decision as to whether a consumer has been misled ‘does not hinge on the use of any particular word (such as ‘meat’), or any particular image’.
Reviews of labelling and marketing regulations under the FSANZ Code
In recent years there have been several reviews into the labelling and marketing regulations for plant-based products. In 2018 the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation authorised the FRSC to conduct a review of food labelling. In its final report of May 2019, the FRSC ‘resolved on a majority basis that plant-based alternatives are adequately regulated under the current labelling requirements and consumer and fair-trading laws’. The findings of this review were contested by some stakeholders, who expressed concern about details included and omitted from the report. These objectors called for a like-for-like comparison between products (rather than a comparison between ‘plant-based alternatives with the whole of meat as one general category’).
In 2020, FSANZ released its report into soy leghemoglobin in meat analogue products, which also considered the labelling and marketing of plant-based protein products. FSANZ iterated the ACCC’s view that the overall impression is the key consideration and ‘a product that is clearly and prominently labelled ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’ or ‘meat-free’ is unlikely to mislead a consumer about whether the product is meat or plant based’. FSANZ also reported that it had discussed the matter with the ACCC who reported that it had ‘received some complaints about how meat analogue products are being represented as meat products’; however, ‘the majority of these complaints were from companies producing traditional meat product or rival companies which asserted that consumer were or could be misled’. The report added that ‘[v]ery few of these complaints were said to be from consumers who believed they had been misled’.
Minister for Agriculture’s Industry Working Group
A further review commenced in September 2020 with the Minister for Agriculture establishing the plant-based alternatives labelling and marketing working group (Industry Working Group). This group consisted of representatives from across the agriculture, retail and the plant-based sector. The Industry Working Group was chaired by the National Farmers’ Federation.
The Industry Working Group facilitated a roundtable discussion hosted by the DAWE to share stakeholders’ views on the current regulation and labelling and marketing requirements of plant-based products. This roundtable led to the production of a discussion paper issued to the Minister for Agriculture in March 2021.
The Industry Working Group’s discussion paper outlined a broad range of approaches available to industry and regulators. However, the working group reported that it was unable to ‘come to a consensus decision’ about the preferred pathway forward, with the majority of members agreeing that a ‘voluntary approach is the preferred…noting further work should be undertaken to explore this option’. Representatives from the meat industry communicated their preference for a regulated model. The Industry Working Group’s discussion paper is considered further throughout this report.
Review and modernisation of Australia’s food regulatory system
On 15 November 2019, the Food Ministers’ Meeting agreed to a plan to reform the food regulatory system ‘to ensure it remains strong, robust and agile in the future’. The primary objectives of the reform agenda are to ‘provide a cohesive, modernised legislative and institutional basis for the system’, and ensure it aligns with ‘international best-practice regulation and operation’. As part of this reform agenda, a review into the FSANZ Act commenced in July 2020. This review involves a comprehensive examination of the FSANZ Act and the ‘associated operations and responsibilities of [FSANZ]’.
International efforts to regulate plant-based products
Debate concerning the use of meat terminology on plant-based products is a global phenomenon, with various parliaments in different countries seeking to implement legislation that seeks to restrict their use.
In the United States, bills introduced at a federal level have not gained traction, whereas numerous states have passed legislation that sought to regulate the plant-based industry. Whilst some states have successfully passed legislation, advocates for the plant-based food sector have commenced litigation action that has prevented and/or delayed implementation. In some jurisdictions, proposed laws have been rejected, or have been amended to permit the ongoing use of existing labelling practices by the plant-based protein industry. The plant-based sector has developed voluntary guidelines for manufacturers.
Effort to implement a regulatory regime for meat terminology had also been witnessed in the European Union. In 2020, a proposal to restrict dairy terminology was successfully progressed in the European Parliament. However, a further amendment proposing to ban meat terminology such as ‘burger’, ‘sausage’ and ‘steak’ was not supported. France has independently passed legislation that prohibits the use of traditional meat and dairy terms on products largely based on non-animal ingredients.
The Industry Working Group’s discussion paper outlined international efforts to regulate the plant-based sector for both meat and dairy terminology. In addition to the United States, the European Union and France, other countries discussed include Canada, China, Japan and India.