Meat substitute company Sunfed Meats is being taken to the Commerce Commission, accused of misleading consumers over its chicken-free chicken. Jihee Junn looks at how such stoushes are becoming increasingly common as the meat and dairy industries begin to fight back.
Here’s a puzzle for you: can meat still be meat if it isn’t actually meat? What about milk that’s not milk? Or cheese? Or eggs?
What’s in a name? A lot, apparently. As the primary foods industry undergoes major upheaval, some meat and dairy advocates have been getting into a tizzy over what they perceive to be an infringement on their linguistic domain. Most recently, in the case of Sunfed Meats vs the Poultry Industry Association New Zealand (PIANZ).
Just days after Sunfed Meats announced it was embarking on a coveted series A-capital raise last week, the Auckland-based start-up was hit with the news that PIANZ is taking the brand’s popular chicken-free chicken to the Commerce Commission. PIANZ says it takes issue with the company’s labelling of the product, arguing that Sunfed’s packaging – which features a picture of a chicken and the phrase “wild meaty chunks” – could be in breach of the Fair Trading Act, which aims to ensure consumers have accurate information when making choices.
While describing the plant-based protein as “wild meaty chunks” might be something of a misnomer considering it is neither “wild” nor “meaty” (unless it’s in the context of texture or intensity), a cursory look at Sunfed’s packaging indicates a number of things that would likely nullify any claims of a breach. Namely, the fact that the words “chicken free chicken” are displayed in big bold letters with the label that it is a “clean lean plant protein … made from peas”.
From a marketing and branding perspective, using words and imagery that evoke mainstream food sources seems reasonable enough for a company such as Sunfed. It’s difficult to sell yourself when people lack an existing base of knowledge to work around, and since the aim for Sunfed is to replicate the taste and texture of real chicken as closely as possible, using the term gives it a helpful starting point to market itself to the masses. After all, a name like “protein strips” doesn’t quite seem to have the same rousing effect on the taste buds.
Linguistic stoushes like these seem to be getting increasingly common in today’s world of meat and dairy alternatives. Earlier this year, meat producers throughout the European Union took issue with the fact that vegan bacon was simply being called bacon, eventually lobbying to remove meat-related words like “hamburger” or “chicken nuggets” from meatless foods altogether. Like PIANZ, the lobbyists argued that describing plant-based products with words long-associated with animal-based foods was simply too confusing and harmful to consumers.
The issue isn’t just confined to the meat industry either, with a lobby group for Australian dairy manufacturers claiming that the term milk was confusing when applied to products made from soy or almond. The group argued that such foods relied on the dairy product’s good name and called for a labelling crackdown based on the Australia New Zealand Food Standards’ definition of the word, which describes milk as “the mammary secretion of milking animals”. And while soy milk by any other name seems unimaginable to most, strict enforcement of the M-word already exists throughout Europe where descriptions such as “soy beverage” or “soy drink” are used instead.
Terminology and language obviously matter, but with meat and dairy substitutes becoming ever more popular, it begs the question: in the face of an evolving food landscape, do the words we use to describe commonly consumed products need to start evolving as well? Milk, for instance, is a term that’s already broadened in scope with newer definitions taking account of “the latex of a plant” or “an unripe kernel of grain”. When it comes to meat, Ethan Brown, founder of one of the biggest plant-based substitutes in the US, sees it not as a byproduct of an animal, but rather a sum of its components. “That’s lipids, amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals and water, none of which have exclusive residence in the animal,” he explains.
Today’s framework of understanding means such complaints by meat and dairy groups certainly aren’t without grounds. But in the course of such scrutiny, it also raises a number of other meat-related questions that groups like PIANZ and Beef + Lamb should be liable to answer. For example: if a mince and cheese pie is made up of just 17% meat, can it still technically use the word “mince” in its name? What about scraps of food cobbled together with glue and sold as “whole, premium quality meat”? Does that constitute as any less misleading? Or how about a sausage that contains three types of meat but only has one listed on its label? Is that not technically misleading as well?
Many of Sunfed’s ardent fans (and boy, are there plenty) have come out to accuse the poultry industry of trying to stamp out the little guy. And while PIANZ insists their complaints are based on the labelling of the product rather than the product itself, the move could easily end up backfiring for an industry already on the verge of major disruption. Still, at least they’ve got Winston on their side.
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