The Australian Greens largely rejects the recommendations of this inquiry, and significantly question its validity as an appropriate use of public service time, resource and money.
The Australian Greens acknowledge the work of the secretariat in undertaking this onerous inquiry, reflected in the professional presentation of the report, and their efforts in coordinating the public hearings, submissions and other work involved.
We acknowledge the many contributors to this inquiry, thanking them for their input and willingness to enter into honest debate on this matter, even if we query the validity of the inquiry basis to begin with.
We would also like to acknowledge the genuine concern of many beef industry witnesses that they feel under siege, and that through this inquiry they are “fighting back”, whilst also expressing the view that the Nationals have not managed expectations and have used the industry as a political football in a game they are unlikely to win.
It is worth noting that this inquiry was a significant departure from Senate protocol, with the use of a legislation committee chaired and dominated by the government, for an inquiry that should have gone through a references committee. This suggests the Nationals had a predetermined outcome planned for the inquiry from the outset, no matter what evidence was provided to the committee. The Greens dissenting report will set this out in detail.
We note that this inquiry has been so named to encourage us to not mince our words. It is the one recommendation of the inquiry we are happy to embrace.
Trumpian-like in their endeavour, the Nationals have delivered an analysis of this inquiry with the eloquence and intellectual vacuity of John Belushi yelling “food fight” in Animal House.
This inquiry takes place against a backdrop of an animal, or traditional, protein based industry that sees red meat exports worth $18.4 billion, domestic red meat sales worth $13.4 billion, smallgoods market $4 billion, supporting 3540 Australian businesses and 195 800 jobs (directly or indirectly).
This illustrates that we start with a traditional meat industry operating, at least in the short and medium term, from a position of considerable strength, and without observable threat to the industry in terms of domestic competition. It should also be noted the level of exports in comparison to imports. This inquiry has at no point established even the most tenuous link to implications for meat exports; from its outset the inquiry covers, at best, less than half of all sales of the traditional meat sector in Australia.
This inquiry also takes place against the backdrop of the most severe and significant challenges to the meat, and wider agriculture industry arising from anthropogenic climate change. Observable phenomena such as drought, bushfires, and floods have already had a significant detrimental impact on the agriculture industry, farmers, and regional communities.
Yet it would seem odd to any objective observer, that the hill the Nationals are pushing the traditional meat industry to die on is not this existential threat to the industry, but instead a peripheral and barely registerable issue of labelling. Furthermore, the way the Nationals have decided to steamroll rationality, and engage in some good, old-fashioned ultra-conservative science bashing, reinforces the frankly bizarre use of taxpayer money in this endeavour.
Farmers of all types deserve better elected representation than to be drawn into a political culture war. Concerns may be had in the traditional meat industry that the reputation of their products is at risk from the rising, but still relatively nascent, plant-based protein industry. Yet, any consideration of the evidence finds this not to be the case. It is a betrayal of farmers to prioritise this issue while actively ignoring and gaslighting on the wider threat to the entire agriculture industry that is climate change.
Consumers themselves lead the way, as demonstrated by Woolworths evidence that the sales of traditional meat outweigh plant-based protein at a scale of 60:1. This simple statistic alone would be enough to dissuade most people from placing too much emphasis on dragging public service time, effort and resources into investigating this matter further. However, for the Nationals, no sense of fact is adequate enough to dissuade them from their belligerent and mystifying anti-truth approach to politics. This might be good neo-liberal conservativism, but it is poor public policy.
Definitions of meat and other animal products
The Inquiry was presented evidence that there has been no ‘appropriation’ of Australian meat category branding.
The first operative word is “Australian”. This is the crux of the inquiry: to consider whether the Australian meat category is being impaired by the presence of plant-based protein products. In a comprehensive review of plant-based meat alternative products on Australian supermarket shelves, not a single product has a name or brand name that implies it is an “Australian” meat product.
Plant-based meat alternative products use meat terminology that is commonly used in every English-speaking country on earth: ‘beef’ ‘sausage’ ‘lamb’ ‘burger’ - along with a clear qualifier that indicates its contents are made from plants, not animals. No product calls itself a “plant-based ‘Australian' beef burger”.
The second operative word is ‘meat’. Concerns were raised that the intellectual property of Australian livestock farmers is being leveraged by plant-based protein companies - yet ‘meat’, ‘beef’, ‘lamb’, etc. are not brands, or trademarked terms.
While both the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment and Australian farmers invest significantly in the marketing of their products, none of this investment can be categorically defined as an investment in ownership of common meat terminology that is used freely in countries all over the world: that claim would be impossible to defend globally. The domestic sector has no more claim to provenance over these terms, than do British farmers over the word ‘chicken’ or American farmers own the word ‘beef’. Even without these controls, the traditional meat industry enjoys a vibrant sales market.
Throughout the course of the inquiry, no reliable quantitative evidence was presented that demonstrates a systemic problem with the current labelling of plant-based products.
Plant-based product sales are increasing as consumers deliberately seek them out as a response to environmental, welfare or health concerns. Woolworths’s submission demonstrated that the vast majority of consumers had not made mistaken purchases, consistent with earlier nationally representative research cited, and showing that consumers were savvy shoppers.
Australia’s competition regulator the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) - in its submission clearly stated that ‘the ACCC has not received information that demonstrates that the labelling of plant-based substitute products is an issue causing consumer detriment’.
The ACCC also indicated that the very few complaints received were from ‘consumers and industry stakeholders in sectors that produce meat or dairy products’.
Similarly, Australia’s food safety regulator FSANZ said in its submission that plant-based products are not being sold or intended to be sold as meat from animal sources.
There is no credible, objective evidence of consumers being misled by existing labelling of plant-based meat products. The only peer-reviewed study concluded the use of animal-associated descriptors or images for plant protein products does not result in consumers mistakenly believing these products contain animal protein. Omitting functional descriptors such as ‘meat’, ‘burger’ and ‘sausage’ creates confusion, because these terms help consumers understand how a product will taste and be used.
Rather than using this compelling evidence to reassure the traditional meat industry, it is disappointing that the findings of this inquiry have been directed elsewhere. Relying on anecdotal evidence to circumnavigate peer-reviewed research, however inconvenient it may be, is not simply bad practice. It is an act of bad faith by the Nationals to permit this faulty assertion to continue, and to mislead farmers in this manner.
Furthermore, it should be noted that many of the anecdotal representations were primarily focused on issues within major supermarkets. Small business butchers are not known for selling plant-based meat products, and their representation was poorly presented in terms of consumer choice in this matter. This reinforces the way in which the current government has failed to adequately support small businesses against large corporations.
The labelling of products is regulated by Australian Consumer Law and the Food Standards Code, providing competent mechanisms should issues be identified. As the Alternative Proteins Council stated in its submission:
what one food sector can and cannot say on packaging should be determined by evidence, consistent with regulation, recognising the importance of business innovation and consumer choice.
Government intervention should be a last-resort to address failures within the market. In this case, there is no evidence of systemic failure which requires intervention. Definitive evidence from regulators demonstrates regulatory change is not required.
It is important to note that heavy-handed regulatory changes may have unintended consequences across this young sector and other food categories. For example, ‘chicken chips’, ‘strawberry cream’ lollies or ‘peanut butter’ could also be deemed misleading if qualifiers, as currently allowed under the Food Standards Code, are restricted.
Far from restricting alternative proteins, other nations are actively promoting the growth of the sectors within their markets. The European Union and many American states in which this same issue has been ultimately rejected restrictions on the use of terminology by plant-based products.
The EU’s Horizon Europe programme is investing €32 million in funding for areas including sustainable protein research while the United States announced US$10m to establish the National Institute for Cellular Agriculture, as part of a US$146m investment in sustainable agricultural research projects.
Australia should not impose unnecessary red tape that could restrict the domestic and export growth of the emerging alternative proteins industry, and potentially deter foreign investment and partnerships in a high-growth global sector. Almost nowhere else in the world are there restrictions on the use of terms for plant-based alternative products – Australia would become an international outlier.
Australian Consumer Law
The labelling of plant-based products has earlier been considered by the Food Ministers Meeting, most recently in 2019. Ministers decided that the current provisions of the Food Standards Code, in conjunction with Australian Consumer Law are sufficient to prevent the misleading labelling and marketing of plant-based foods.
The Minister for Agriculture subsequently convened a working group in September 2020 comprising a broad cross section of agri-food sector participants including dairy, red meat, grains, horticulture, retailers and industry groups, in addition to alternative protein representatives. This working group recommended to the Minister in a discussion paper March 2021 that:
the majority of working group members [agreed] that a voluntary approach is the preferred way forward noting further work should be undertaken to explore this option.
This report notes that both the National Farmers’ Federation in its verbal presentation to the committee and the Australian Food and Grocery Council in both its written submission and verbal evidence, called for the development of voluntary industry guidelines.
The representative group for the alternative proteins sector, the Alternative Proteins Council, stated in its submission that it was ‘actively engaging in discussions regarding voluntary guidelines’. The alternative protein sector should be supported in its endeavours to develop appropriate voluntary guidelines.
The Senate Inquiry has unearthed no additional evidence that would contradict earlier examinations of this issue, or associated recommendations.
As several stakeholders to the Senate Inquiry have noted, while cellular agriculture products were included within the scope of this Inquiry, it is too early to consider appropriate regulations for a sector that is not near commercial reality.
Products derived from cellular agriculture should not be included within the recommendations of this Inquiry, but rather FSANZ, as the competent regulator should engage with companies seeking to bring products to market through the normal safety assessment and approvals process.
Opportunities from the protein sector
The growth of domestic plant protein sector benefits Australian economy, farmers and businesses.
Stifling growth contradicts intent of government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy, threatens investment, and lessens the agriculture sector’s ability to reach its $100B by 2030 goal.
There is no evidence of impairment, or threat of future impairment. In 2019, alternative (including plant) proteins held just $2.2 billion of the overall $1.7 trillion global meat market. Plant proteins represent just 0.6% of the domestic red meat market.
AgriFutures says the new demand for animal protein created by the rising global population is expected to outweigh any additional market share that alternative proteins may gain in the near future (i.e. there is no threat, now, or in the foreseeable future).
Global protein consumption has risen 40% since 2000, predominantly driven by population growth.
In 2020 the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimated there were 1 billion people deficient in protein. With a population forecast of nearly 10 billion by 2050, more protein is needed. It is not clear that traditional meat can meet this increased demand on its own.
Australia is well-placed to lead the world in the plant protein boom – capitalising on our strong, reliable grain production industry with its reputation for clean, green agricultural products and sustainable growing practices.
The projected value of Australia’s plant and alternative protein industry is predicted to reach $4 billion and create 6000 jobs by 2030.
Australian grain growers deserve the opportunity to benefit from new market opportunities that will provide more competition in the market, security of an ongoing customer, and value-add premiums for their product.
It is critical to note that all food products making health claims must meet regulations and be FSANZ-approved.
The production of plant protein products allows products to be specifically formulated to be comparable to beef on a gram for gram basis for key nutrients including protein, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. This fortification is not unusual in food products.
Animal proteins require processing before being consumed, and depending on the product can include the addition of various ingredients (seasonings, marinades, preservatives and the mandatory cooking that changes the proteins and can generate carcinogens).
Plant proteins need a certain degree of processing to create the form, function and taste that consumers demand. The additives and flavourings used to do this are all approved by FSANZ as safe, and many are also used in the manufacturing of processed red meat products such as sausages.
Recommendations of the inquiry
Recommendation 1 — Reject
The process and work of prior bodies, most notably the industry working group in 2021, had already made progress in agreeing a voluntary code of conduct. Whilst acknowledging that this was not to the liking of some sectors of the traditional meat industry, the case has not been made that a mandatory framework is necessary.
Recommendation 2 — Reject
This recommendation illustrates the significant politicisation and overreach of this inquiry. It is notable that in the Chair’s foreword, reference is made to the Department of Health lacking “policing or investigative powers.” We believe this demonstrates the motivation behind this inquiry, in being a political instrument to wield burdensome and near-authoritarian-like regulatory control as a weapon against a particular industry. Worse still, this signifies a much greater threat to vital cornerstone of food regulation in this country, undermining the public health ethos in favour of a narrow, industry-run system.
Recommendation 3 — Reject
It is has never been clear how a regulatory instrument could be suitably designed for a technology that is still in its infancy. This inquiry has failed in any measure to make a coherent case for this recommendation, and it illustrates the over-reach and effective scare-mongering inherent in the motivations of the inquiry.
Recommendation 4 — Reject
This recommendation is unnecessary over-reach into existing regulatory controls.
Recommendation 5 — Reject
By agreeing to voluntary labelling guidelines, this recommendation is unnecessary.
Recommendation 6 — Reject
This recommendation represents overreach, is lacking in evidence base, and significantly politicises ACCC.
Recommendation 7 — Agree
Recommendation 8 — Agree
Recommendation 9 — Reject
This would be unnecessarily burdensome, there is a lack of evidence to support need.
The Australian Greens recommendations
We know that the global food system is resource intensive and a big contributor to environmental degradation. Yet our growing global population means we will need to produce more food - in particular, protein - than ever before.
Reducing food waste, combined with advancements in agricultural technology and new food production innovations, are important ways to reduce the environmental impact of our food systems. Amidst these innovations, foods like alternative proteins offer a significant opportunity to address climate and biodiversity crises while simultaneously improving food security for the world’s growing population.
We recommend that there should be the development of a voluntary framework, which might include an industry-led voluntary labelling standard, and that further consultation be undertaken through a separate industry group to develop what the voluntary framework involves.
The inquiry should recommend greater industry development of alternative proteins in Australia, in line with other policies prioritising the agri-food sector. There should also be examination by the government of improved ways to support local business, like butchers, and encourage consumers to shop local.
Alternative proteins are a growing and innovative food sector that provides significant opportunity for Australian farmers-food businesses. It also offers consumers greater choice and new, sustainable food options. The sector includes plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, and the emerging field of cellular agriculture (growing meat or other animal products from cells, with fewer resources and risks to public health). Research from the Australian Farm Institute, CSIRO and Deloitte Access Economics shows that by 2030, alternative proteins can contribute billions of dollars in economic value and thousands of new jobs in Australia.
Australia is a proud farming nation with an ambition to realise a $100 billion food and fibre sector by 2030, and the infrastructure and skills to become a world leader in emerging fields of protein innovation. Australia can provide new protein-rich foods to the world while contributing to a greener and future-proof food system.
Encourage and assist collaboration between research institutions and Australian farmers to identify and facilitate the planting of region-specific high-protein, climate-resilient crops for sale into the domestic plant protein supply chain.
Support companies to expand their operational capacity and/or establish more local facilities to process Australian grown plant proteins into high-quality ingredients for products in demand by a growing domestic and global market. And,
Ensure our tertiary institutions are connected with industry and its future demands so they can deliver the best courses and pathways for the next generation employed in the alternative protein sector. This includes specialised food technologists, scientists, researchers, and machine operators.
Furthermore, Australian scientists and research institutions are world-leaders in the scientific fields most relevant to cellular agriculture innovation, such as tissue engineering, cellular biology, and food technology. To position Australia as a global leader in this fast-growing industry, by harnessing our existing research infrastructure and intellectual capital, the government should enable the establishment of cellular agriculture centres of excellence at research institutions, similar to those in the U.S., Netherlands and Singapore.
Australia’s international competitiveness shouldn’t be restricted. The Australian government should form a task-force to coordinate existing research programs such as the CSIRO’s Future Protein Mission, with other research institutions, to accelerate local cellular agriculture research, and consider new dedicated research programmes.
The government should hold an Inquiry into introducing sustainability labelling requirements, or a similar consumer education tool, on fresh and packaged foods, to enable consumers to make informed purchasing decisions about the environmental footprint of different food types.
In addition to identifying a framework to inform Australian consumers about sustainable food choices, the inquiry will also explore avenues to: better understand barriers to supporting sustainable food choices; provide greater education to students about climate-friendly foods, and; incorporate food sustainability into institutional dietary recommendations.
Distribute the outcomes of the inquiry to better enable public relevant public-facing authorities to educate consumers about the environmental impact of different food types and how to make sustainable food choices.
Support existing regulation enabling plant-based products to use appropriate qualifiers on-pack, as detailed in the Food Standards Code.
Provide support to the alternative proteins sector through advice and active collaboration to implement voluntary industry labelling guidelines based on the work of the sector.
Examine definitions within the Food Standards Code to ensure they facilitate the labelling of alternative proteins (including plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, and products of cellular agriculture technology) with commonly used food terminology.
Products derived from cellular agriculture are not proximate to the consumer market. The government, through FSANZ as regulator, should facilitate a permissive and enabling evidence-based regulatory framework with the sector as it approaches commercial reality in the future.
Senator Peter Whish-Wilson