Tomorrow the Australian minister for agriculture is in Christchurch to lobby for a ban on words like “milk” and “meat” from the labels of meat and dairy alternatives. Shama Sukul Lee, the founder of alternative meat startup Sunfed, says the campaign is not about the consumer: it’s driven by a powerful industry trying to curb competition.
Let’s start with the fundamentals. What is the purpose of food labelling? What is the purpose of the information printed on food packaging? The primary purpose is to serve the consumer by informing them of the functionality and composition of the food product. Essentially, how to use it and what’s in it.
To pick a familiar example, peanut butter. The word butter here evolved to convey functionality to the consumer so they are able to quickly grasp that this product can be used like butter and can be spread on your toast. Another familiar example is soy milk. The word milk evolved to convey functionality to the consumer that this product can be used like milk – for baking, with cereal or in your coffee.
If we look at the word flour, it used to mean flour made from wheat. That was the predominant option available in the western market for a long time. There wasn’t much other choice. With the rise in demand for gluten-free options, there’s now a multitude of choices for consumers labelled as gluten-free flour or wheat-free flour. Again we see that the word “flour” evolved to imply functionality alongside the expansion of different choices.
All this happened without much fuss – the market and language just naturally evolved and consumers were empowered with more and more options.
The precedent was set.
But then a new generation of meat alternatives dared to enter the market. And this time, instead of allowing that same natural evolution of language, there’s strong resistance. But not from the consumer or the farmer. Rather from the powerful meat and dairy industry, backed by politicians with vested interests.
I speak from first-hand experience. My New Zealand startup Sunfed has a popular chicken alternative in the Australasian market named Chicken Free Chicken. Pretty self-explanatory name – “chicken free” means it’s free of animal chicken, and the latter “chicken” conveys functionality given the product can be used in place of chicken in chicken recipes. The packaging states it’s plant protein, made from yellow peas, with full ingredient and nutritional info listed along with a whole host of other information. The Sunfed packaging also has a window with the specific purpose of allowing the consumer to have a good look at the product before purchase. So the packaging makes it clear that this is a chicken alternative made from plants. The key selling point is that this is plant-based, and not animal-based, protein. That’s why it’s popular.
When we first launched Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken to market in New Zealand, it kept selling out at supermarkets and generated a lot of buzz. The poultry industry created some fuss in the media and put a complaint through to the Commerce Commission. It was fairly investigated and the commission ruled that Chicken Free Chicken was not misleading to consumers, and, importantly, that we are not breaking any of the current food labelling laws.
But in Australia, our launch was met with a different vibe from government officials, with some now trying to actively change the law. The Australian minister for agriculture, Senator Bridget McKenzie, tweeted that we must protect our farmers from Chicken Free Chicken made from peas, upon which people kindly tweeted back and told her that there are such things as crop farmers. Some also asked her to give peas a chance!
When journalists called her to clarify her tweet, hasty comments were then made to say that this was not about protectionism and curbing innovation, instead, it was about labelling for the consumer.
But is it? Are consumers really as dim as they are being made out to be? Would relabelling almond milk to almond juice or veggie burgers to veggie discs actually serve the consumer, or just create confusion about the functionality of the product? This is about serving a particular industry. And serving an industry that itself has a very poor track record on labelling.
As it currently stands, the meat industry is not required to tell consumers what is fed to the animals we eat, whether that be a daily dose of antibiotics in chicken feed, colouring agent astaxanthin in salmon feed or the cheap GMO soy and corn feeds.
Despite clear consumer demand to know more about the meat on their plate, the government didn’t intervene. No labelling changes have been put in place. Instead, the market itself had to respond with elective new labels to serve this consumer need – such as free range, organic, non-GMO and antibiotic free. There is a lot that is deliberately hidden about animal meat and dairy production, but despite that, consumer awareness keeps growing.
Similarly, why aren’t the high food safety risks of salmonella and campylobacter infection clearly communicated to the consumer on raw chicken packaging? Raw chicken is now the most hazardous food you can take into your kitchen. If the consumer was informed of this risk on the packaging, along with instructions on how to safely handle raw chicken meat, it would drastically reduce the infection rates. Australia might finally give up its position as having the highest illness rate in the world, with almost 300,000 infections and 18 deaths every year from just these two illnesses alone.
Another health concern is with red meat. When the World Health Organisation declared bacon and other processed red meats as cancer-causing carcinogens in the same group as tobacco and asbestos, who was held accountable for the incorrect information given to consumers for generations? The excuse from governments and the meat industry is that we didn’t know back then. But now we do. The evidence is overwhelming, with cancer organisations responding accordingly. So why isn’t there a requirement for this risk to be printed on processed meat packaging?
All this shows that this issue is clearly not about the consumer. Instead it’s driven by a powerful industry to curb competition. By putting in new laws designed to actively stunt market expansion and choices for the consumer, the Australian government is devolving to feudal protectionism.
Meat and dairy alternatives have been on the market for a very long time. This is not a new concept for consumers. The difference now is that there is a new generation of meat alternatives that offer a great meaty experience along with nutritional benefits.
The actual selling point of these products is that they are not animal-based – no one is out to hide that, it wouldn’t make commercial sense to do so. The everyday mainstream consumers dubbed “flexitarians” want to do meatless Mondays or reduce their animal meat consumption for various reasons, but they haven’t had good options until now. And they are exercising that choice. And this is what has led Big Meat into defence mode.
Normally calls for such anti-competitive policies from big industries would have been shrugged off as we rely on existing laws and the government to ensure the free market remains, well, free, and hence competitive. That’s the only thing that truly serves the consumer. So it’s worrying to see these Australian politicians actively pushing hard to get bans in place against meat and dairy alternatives, with Senator Bridget McKenzie inviting herself to Christchurch this Friday, November 15, to advocate for the ban at the Australia New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation.
Australia and New Zealand share the same food standards code, so changes driven by Australian politicians will be forced onto New Zealand as well.
It’s important to note that the free-market economy functions on the same three principles of a democracy:
Accurate information made available to people
Choice. Without diverse options to choose from, it’s not a democracy.
Active engagement by individuals to critically evaluate and assess the choices before casting their vote. Democracy, after all, is meant to be of the people, by the people, for the people.
So to keep the market free and competitive, we have to stay vigilant.
This is a greater issue than just Chicken Free Chicken – you don’t have to like the product nor the name. But you should still advocate for your right to have the choice to not choose it.
By forcing through such protectionist and anti-competitive policies, the Australian Nationals are actively undermining the healthy democratic process of a free market. Instead of letting the market evolve with expanding choices and allowing the consumer to vote with their wallet, they are instead attempting to take that choice away. And the only losers in the end will be the consumers themselves.
From time immemorial, language has been evolving. The words “cloud” and “tweet” have new meanings now, additional to their old meanings. The word “chicken” itself already has multiple meanings. The words meat and milk were never reserved just for animals – coconut meat and milk prove as much. No one thinks there is dog in their hot dog. This feigned outrage over labelling masks what’s actually happening – an old, powerful industry, fearful of change, using their money and puppet politicians to tilt the scales in their favour.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.