Further matters raised during the inquiry related to nutritional, environmental and animal welfare statements found on the packaging of plant-based products. The committee heard concerns that the information found on the packaging of these products was inaccurate, or was not supported by sound evidence. References were made to a study by the University of Melbourne that found plant-based protein companies made a range of claims about the benefits of their products, which included nutritional, environmental, animal welfare and food security claims. Overall, the study found ‘[f]ew companies provided evidence or data to support their claims’. The Alternative Meat Co and v2food were noted exceptions, with references made to source material.
This chapter considers the nutritional information available on plant-based protein products, including broader discussions about the definition of plant-based protein products under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Code (FSANZ Code, the Code) and minimum compositional requirements. This chapter then considers arguments about environmental outcomes and animal welfare statements made by plant-based protein companies in the labelling and marketing of their products.
A concern shared with the committee related to plant-based protein companies marketing their products as either nutritionally equivalent or superior to traditional protein products. The Australian Chicken Meat Federation (ACMF) argued that plant-based products did not contain complete proteins, and that some nutrients would be missing unless fortified with amino acids and vitamin B12. With reference to the findings of an AgriFutures report, the ACMF commented that plant-based products failed to meet the same ‘energy requirement that would place them in the same category as meat in the food classification system’.
The Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) described meat as a ‘nutrient dense, highly bioavailable protein…[with] critical macro and micronutrients’ that ‘allows essential amino-acids and nutrients’ to be efficiently absorbed into healthy bodies. Concerning claims of nutritional equivalency, the RMAC referenced a Duke University study that found there to be nutritional difference between plant-based foods and grass-fed beef, despite similarities being communicated on nutritional information panels. This study cautioned against ‘categorising foods as equivalent for consumers based on their protein content’. The RMAC warned that this categorisation posed health concerns for vulnerable populations.
Claims of nutritional equivalency have been a longstanding matter of concern for the dairy industry.
The Australian Dairy Industry Council (ADIC) criticised the findings of the Food Regulation Standing Committee that found no evidence of Australian and New Zealand consumers being misled by the ‘nutritional differences between meat and dairy and plant based alternatives when choosing a product’. It cited the Australia Trust Tracker, a consumer study in place since 2018, that found ‘between 45 and 55 per cent of respondents’ are of the view that plant-based dairy products are healthier than milk. The ADIC also cited research in the Food Science of Animal Resources journal that found ‘natural milk possesses more beneficial nutrients and bioactive components than artificially manufactured plant-based milks’.
Dr Paul Wood AO, of the Australian Sustainable Animal Protein Production, criticised nutritional claims made by the plant-based protein sector. He accused the sector of appropriating ‘well-recognised nutritional value of nutrient-dense animal products’. He was of the view that the primary issue causing confusion was not product labelling; rather, it is ‘one of nutrition’ because ‘[t]he data is quite clear: plant based products do not have the same composition or nutritional profile of animal based products’.
Similarly, Dr Garry Fettke, a critic of national dietary guidelines and the consumption of highly processed foods, spoke of the misconceptions about meat intake. He argued there was an overemphasis on the health (and environmental) benefits of plant-based protein products, which he argued have ‘not been established’.
A further criticism directed at the plant-based protein sector was the composition of their products. These witnesses and submitters referred to those products being highly processed and containing additives and a high salt content. They claimed these products could result in adverse health impacts for consumers.
These views were widely dismissed by advocates for the plant-based protein sector. Nestle submitted that the ‘nutrition of plant-based foods is already appropriately addressed by existing regulations’, which ‘includes ingredients and on-pack nutrition claims’.
Regarding the nutritional qualities of plant-based proteins, v2food advised the committee that it ‘deliberately formulated [its] products to be comparable to beef’ through research. For this reason, v2food products have the ‘same in terms of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B3, B12 and B6’. Sanitarium submitted that the fortification of its plant-based protein products with iron and vitamin B12 meant people who wished to avoid animal-based foods would not compromise their nutritional requirements. It referenced an audit of plant-based products that found them to be lower in energy content, total fat and saturated fat, lower levels of protein and similar iron content to traditional protein products. The use of legumes, grains, plant fibres and starches meant plant-based products were high in carbohydrates, sugars and dietary fibre.
A study conducted by Food Frontier found plant-based protein products to be ‘on average nutritionally comparable or superior’ to ‘conventional meat sausages, burgers and bacon’. The Alternative Proteins Council (APC) submitted that plant-based products have an ‘added benefit of dietary fibre and in most cases considerably lower saturated fat than their conventional meat counterparts’.
In terms of comparing nutritional attributes of protein products, the CSIRO referred to the importance of a ‘like-for-like’ comparison. The CSIRO also made clear that any product on sale for human consumption was deemed safe under FSANZ Guidelines, a point made by the plant-based protein sector. These stakeholders contended that any food product available on the Australian market is subject to the same level of oversight and scrutiny through FSANZ. Further, any additives used in the production of plant-based protein products has been approved for human consumption, with many of those additives also being used in traditional protein foods.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council expressed concern with the framing of plant-based protein products as unsafe because it threatens both ‘the reputation of Australia’s food and agricultural sector but also denigrates Australia’s food regulatory system’. Its representative, Dr Geoffrey Annison raised concern with the singling out of a single category of food:
Our concern is that one particular category of food is being singled out, and it's being done in a way that suggests that the food regulatory system is not working well, when it's our contention that it's working extremely well and it does assure the safety of food products and it does ensure that those products are safe for consumption by consumers.
The committee questioned FSANZ about how it reviews claims of nutritional adequacy and equivalency of food products sold in Australia. FSANZ advised the committee that it leverages data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ national nutrition survey. Its representative, Mr Glen Neal explained this process in the context of FSANZ’s consideration of soy leghemoglobin used by Impossible Foods:
With regard to any new application for a new food, we have to have regard to not only its safety but also, in many cases, its nutritional adequacy or its nutritional equivalence. If I can, I will perhaps give an example. Last year and a bit before that, we started work on and completed the assessment of the Impossible burger soy leghemoglobin product. The key issue for us there was not only the safety aspects but the bioavailability of the iron that's delivered in that product, particularly because the product has been positioned to be nutritionally equivalent, in terms of iron intake, to meat counterparts. We do have experts and capability in performing those assessments, and our particular assessment of that application was certainly made part of the process.
FSANZ proceeded to iterate that its primary purpose is to ‘ensure that everything anybody purchases on the shelves is safe and is okay in regard to public health and safety—that all the ingredients that get looked at and assessed and all the additives...used are okay’. Dr Sandra Cutherbert expressed her confidence in the food regulatory system, but acknowledged that consumers are also required to put in effort to understand nutritional information on product packaging:
I'm very comfortable and confident to say that the food that's available for people to purchase is safe. Then it's a matter of ensuring that consumers have all of the necessary information that they need to be able to ensure that they can make their choices based on their individual needs, their allergy situation or whatnot. So we do want to ensure that the label is sufficiently clear and that there be additional information that supports that. You've referred to the health star rating. We've spoken about the ingredients listed in it. I understand that there's a bit of effort needed to look at the package.
Research into health impacts of traditional and plant-based protein products
The committee received evidence about the health implications of both traditional protein and plant-based protein products, and the need for further research. Whilst the potential adverse health impacts of processed meats have been established, questions remained about the health impacts of plant-based protein products, with calls for further research.
The George Institute submitted that research has found that plant-based protein products ‘can be high in sodium, albeit comparable to their animal-sourced processed meat counterparts’. But overall, there was ‘little research that has looked at the specific links between manufactured protein products and health outcomes’.
The CSIRO commented that further research is warranted, but emphasised that any research comparing processed products should be made from ‘within a category (i.e. a traditional burger patty with an alternative burger patty)’.
The George Institute added that unprocessed meats are a core food product under Australia’s Dietary Guidelines, with important nutrients such as iron and B12. Yet despite these nutritional benefits, it concluded that Australia’s overall consumption of meat should be reduced for both ‘personal health and planetary health reasons’. It suggested plant-based protein products could supplement some of the nutritional benefits of meat.
Arguments in favour of reducing Australia’s overall meat consumption (at approximately 100kg per person per year) were shared by representatives from across vegan, animal welfare groups and the plant-based sector. No Meat May referenced Australia’s high consumption of meat being triple the global average, with Australians ‘effectively eating twice the upper limit of red meat that’s advised in the Australian dietary guidelines and recommended by independent public health authorities such as the Cancer Council and Diabetes Australia’.
Definitions and compositional requirements under the FSANZ Code
The FSANZ Code does not have a standard to ‘define plant-based alternatives and their minimum compositional requirements’. As noted in Chapter 1, the Code defines dairy analogues as ‘derived from legumes, cereals, nuts, seeds, or a combination of those ingredients’, which is grouped under the food group that consists of dairy products named under the Code. Plant-based protein products (meat analogues) are not named under the food group that consists of ‘meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and dried legumes’, nor defined under particular foods.
This point was raised by Seafood Industry Australia, who recommended ‘the development of a FSANZ Code for the application to, and identification of synthetic, manufactured, cellular and plant-based proteins’ referred to as ‘meat analogues’.
Similarly, Australian Pork Limited suggested that the FSANZ Code is amended to introduce a standard ‘that specifically deals with plant-based manufactured protein products, and which defines what they are, what minimum compositional standards they should meet and labelling requirements apply to them’.
The Green Shirts Movement and Property Rights Australia agreed that establishing a definition and minimum requirements for plant-based protein products was needed, similar to existing meat products defined under the FSANZ Code such as a meat pie. Dr Rachel Cruwys from the Green Shirts Movement added that ‘[t]he meat industry has had to abide by these standards for a long time’.
The Industry Working Group considered amendments to the Code, which consisted of two parts:
the introduction of Standards under the FSANZ Code that define plant-based protein products and their minimum compositional requirements; and
to revise the fortification permissions for plant-based products, to provide better alignment to and meat and dairy products.
Regarding minimum compositional requirements, the Industry Working Group’s report noted that the absence of those requirements meant that ‘plant-based alternatives are permitted to add a number of vitamins and minerals at levels greater than dairy’.
Industry Working Group’s report found the meat and dairy industries were supportive of amending the FSANZ Code to establish both a definition for plant-based protein products and minimal compositional requirements. However, this action was objected to by the plant-based sector on grounds that consideration of this matter was outside the scope of the Industry Working Group’s task, which was to consider current labelling requirements.
The Industry Working Group’s report explained that should this approach be pursued, the normal submission process to FSANZ would be required. The report noted that potential benefits of establishing a definition and minimum compositional requirements for plant-based products include: nutritional consistency across products, clarity about bioavailability and fortification, and the potential development of additional products for the meat, dairy and plant-based sectors. Whereas detriments include: increased costs on manufacturers (that may impact on a return on investment), potential increased consumer confusion, long implementation period, may not attain approval and contradicts arguments that existing regulatory settings are fit-for-purpose.
Environmental outcomes and animal welfare
The committee heard evidence about the purported positive environmental outcomes resulting from increased consumption of plant-based foods. Stakeholders spoke of animal meat products’ impact on biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline and climate change. The livestock sector expressed concern about these ‘dishonest and misrepresenting’ claims made about the environmental impacts of livestock production, whether it be on the local environments or the broader debate concerning climate change and methane production.
Various stakeholders spoke of ‘reputational loss’ as a result of the unsubstantiated claims made in the marketing of plant-based protein products. The Victorian Farmers Federation made clear that ‘no food is without environmental impact, and when one is able to claim that it’s better than another, in an unregulated fashion, it’s dangerous for so many reasons’.
Representatives of the livestock industry sought to emphasise the environmental credentials of the sector, and the significant investment made by the livestock sector to reduce its environmental impact and maintain its reputable image both in Australia and abroad. Examples provided included GPS tracking to manage cattle grazing and improve groundcover, vegetation management, carbon abatement programs, cessation of hormone and chemical inputs, methane reduction programs and organic farming practices.
The livestock industry objected to claims that growth in demand for plant-based protein products would facilitate better farming practices by replacing livestock production with cropping agriculture. Farmers from across Australia, along with the RMAC, expressed dismay at such beliefs with many pointing out that the land in which cattle is farmed on is often unsuitable for crops. Others pointed out that various landholders simultaneously operate both livestock and crop enterprises, with the RMAC making clear that cropping too has unavoidable environmental impacts caused by land clearing, and the use of fertiliser and insecticide. However, v2food objected to the suggestion that the plant-based protein sector was seeking to displace livestock farming, stating that ‘[a]nyone with a basic understanding of agriculture knows that [the transfer of land use] is ridiculous’.
Whilst not a central matter considered as part of this inquiry, animal welfare concerns were also discussed. Vegan and animal welfare groups referred to the positive impact plant-based products have on reducing the demand for animal products, thus improving animal welfare. However, advocates from the animal protein sector emphasised that these views failed to acknowledge the Australian livestock farming has some of highest standards of animal welfare as part of the sector’s quality assurance programs, partly funded by industry levies.
Matters raised with the ACCC
A criticism directed at the ACCC was its lack of action to investigate misleading labelling of plant-based protein products, particularly those that make unsubstantiated claims about health and environmental benefits, both in favour of plant-based foods and against the animal protein. The RMAC criticised the ACCC for not investigating such ‘credence’ claims despite its own compliance and enforcement policy that empowers it to investigate a ‘new or emerging market issue or where their action is likely to have an educative or deterrent effect’.
In response to this concern, the ACCC outlined the difficulty for a court to make a determination on credence claims, especially claims pertaining to environmental benefit:
…it is particularly difficult, within the court system, to establish, for example, that a claim that a product is more environmentally conscious than another is actually false. It would involve a great deal of expert evidence, and there are a lot of competing bodies of evidence about such matters that would make an extremely challenging court case.
Whilst the language and marketing strategies used by the plant-based protein sector may promote a product’s health, ethical and environmental credentials, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) warned of ‘the implications for consumer trust of a continued dichotomous framing of meat versus alternatives as a zero-sum market’. It noted that some marketing language used by the plant-based protein sector ‘portrayed animal proteins in a negative manner, using misleading and inaccurate information’. Further, ‘[g]eneralised statements on environmental stewardship issues such as water-use and greenhouse gas emissions do not consider or portray the wide range of farming management practices utilised in the animal protein sector’.
AFI explained that ‘[w]hile consumer law cannot prevent the expression of a negative opinion, it is incumbent on law-makers to ensure any public claims made about a company’s or competitor’s products are truthful and accurate’. It described the sustainability of the food system as a ‘wickedly complex issue’ and that ‘[w]arring factions do not engender trust in a community, nor in a marketplace’.
The AFI’s General Manager, Ms Katie McRobert emphasised the risks associated with the ‘war of words’ between the traditional and plant-based protein sectors and that both parties are accountable for any claims they make:
We are concerned that a war of words could engender mistrust, which would have the opposite effect of what was intended and could backfire on either market or both markets.
We also would like to note that any threat we see to the livelihood of Australian livestock producers is much more likely to come from regulatory change, and this community pressure is often driven by misinformation or disinformation. We think it's absolutely vital that all protein producers, both animal and alternative, are accountable for any claims so that consumers can make informed choices and producers can make evidence based sustainable production decisions.
In response to changing dynamics in the protein market, AgriFutures’s Changing Landscape of Protein Production report recommended that ‘[p]rotein producers should be proactive in differentiating their products, particularly in promotion of health or environmental benefits, rather than reactive against a competitor’s perceived threat’.
Committee comment and recommendation
The committee is concerned by reports of unverified nutritional claims being made by the plant-based sector. The committee does not believe that a manufactured product is nutritionally equivalent or superior to a 100 per cent natural, animal-sourced meat product. These claims fail to acknowledge the nutritional value of Australia’s meat products and the vital role meat plays in supporting a healthy, balanced diet.
More broadly, the committee is supportive of the food regulatory system and recognises that food goods and additives consumed by consumers are thoroughly reviewed prior to their introduction to the Australian market. However, consumers are within their right to question manufacturing processes, with clear nutritional difference between a manufactured meat product and its plant-based replica. Overall, the committee agrees with those stakeholders who emphasise the importance of establishing ‘like-for-like’ comparisons between products when making a nutritional analysis.
With respect to the FSANZ Code, the committee is concerned by the absence of a specific definition for plant-based protein products and sees benefit in establishing a definition for these products under the Code. The need for a clear understanding of what constitutes a plant-based protein product under the Code will become vital as the sector continues to evolve and grow in the decades ahead.
An additional gap under the Code is the absence of minimum compositional requirements for plant-based products. The committee questions why certain compositional requirements for meat products (for example meat pie and sausage) are accepted, yet the proposition for similar compositional requirements to plant-based products is opposed. Whilst the committee has not received sufficient evidence to make a clear determination on these matters, it agrees a review is required. The committee notes that these concerns are longstanding and were raised as part of the Industry Working Group’s discussion paper.
The committee considers the current review being undertaken by FSANZ into the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1999 provides an ideal opportunity for further consultation with stakeholders about amending the FSANZ Code.
Whilst not considered in detail within this report, this review may also include the revision of fortification permissions for plant-based products, as discussed in the Industry Working Group’s discussion paper.
The committee recommends that, as part of its review of the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1999, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), initiates consultations with stakeholders about amending the FSANZ Code to include:
a definition of plant-based protein products; and
minimum compositional requirements for plant-based protein products.
Concerning environmental and animal welfare statements, the committee remains concerned by the misinformation produced by current labelling and marketing practices for some products. Australia’s livestock sector has some of the best environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. Broad, overarching generalisations fail to acknowledge the livestock sector’s commitment and substantial investment into improving environmental and animal welfare standards in Australia. The committee considers it unfortunate that unsubstantiated credence claims are difficult to address under ACL and raises the question whether the regulatory system as it stands is fit for purpose.
The committee heeds warnings by the Australian Farm Institute that a zero-sum market is detrimental to both the traditional protein and plant-based protein sectors. The committee emphasises that a national protein market, driven by healthy competition, guided by honest marketing and labelling practices is a key to both sectors’ success.
Senator Susan McDonald