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SocietyFebruary 14, 2017

The latest threat to NZ’s economy, according to Winston? Vegetarian sausages


Winston Peters is up in arms about fake meat products, accusing them of ‘ripping off’ names traditionally associated with the real thing. Instead of quibbling about labelling, why not seize the opportunity presented by non-meat alternatives, writes Kathryn van Beek.

Most of us have our own ways of trying to make the world a better place. Some of us volunteer for charity. Some work in jobs where we heal the sick or help the poor. Some let it mellow if it’s yellow. And some of us try to suppress the popularity of ethical foods.

Wait, what?

The New Zealand Herald reports that Winston Peters nailed his (blue) colours to the mast by complaining that some vegetarian and vegan food products use names traditionally associated with meat.

“This is serious for New Zealand because there’s no such thing as ‘vegetarian steak’, ‘vegetarian mince’ or ‘mock chicken’,” he is reported as saying. “What’s at stake is the integrity of our meat exports that are worth over $6 billion. Meat is meat, so why is this government allowing such blatant misdescriptions to go unchallenged?”

It’s easy to brush this off as Winston signalling to conservative voters that come election time, he’s not going to side with those vegetarian sausage-scoffing Greens. But his comments appear to be part of a global trend in baloney.

In a December 16 media release, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch “urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to exercise its legal authority to investigate and take action against the manufacturers of products they falsely claim to be milk.” (Welch’s definition of milk, “the lacteal secretion…obtained by the complete milking of one of more healthy cows,” also raises the questions: What should the lacteal secretions of goats and sheep be called? And is goat cheese is still a thing?)

The meat substitute selection in a vegan supermarket in Germany. Photo: Josefine Stenudd/Creative Commons

Over in Germany, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt isn’t mincing his words when it comes to terms like “vegan curry sausage” and “vegetarian schnitzel” which he says are misleading and unsettling (presumably to anyone unfamiliar with the terms ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’, or who worries that these products contain actual vegans and vegetarians).

Winston and his wingmen are drinking from a half-empty glass of cow secretions, when they could be drinking from a half-full glass of almond milk. When it comes to food we’re facing an uncertain future, and scientists are already quietly priming us for a diet of lab-grown meat and insect protein. Some people might find plant-based protein a more palatable choice.

Peter Welch’s media release says that over the past five years in the US, “sales of certain plant-based [products] grew 250 percent to more than US$894.6 million. By contrast, sales of milk fell 7 percent in 2015.” Instead of crying over alternative milk, Welch should rush to buy shares in Vitasoy. The rise in popularity of plant-based foods signals an opportunity, not a threat.

With the possible exception of the Greypower Facebook page, social media has helped pique peoples’ interest in non-traditional food. In the UK there’s been a 350% increase in veganism over the past ten years. Here in Godzone, vegetarianism grew 27% between 2011 and 2015. Our politicians and farmers should be jumping on the gravy train. As consumers react to concerns about climate change, animal rights, health and who has the most regrammable #cleaneating posts, New Zealand is perfectly positioned to become the ethical food producer to the world.

Low-animal (and therefore low carbon) diets are becoming more appetising for consumers seeking to reduce their carbon footprints. Animal farming contributes disproportionately to pesticide, fertiliser and water use, and means feed for animals is grown on land where food for human consumption could be grown instead. (Oh, and there’s also that little issue about waterways.) We could trade off our ‘clean, green’ image by producing genuinely clean, green food products.

Growing appreciation for human and animal welfare is also increasing the hunger for plant-based food. Animal abuse at the hands of New Zealand farmers, while not the norm, is reported with alarming regularity. By contrast, West Auckland tofu producers Tonzu support the SPCA and pay their factory employees the living wage. With the rise of conscious consumerism, that’s a story you can sell.

If instead of tapping into a growth market we would rather apply concrete thinking to our food labelling, let’s be consistent across all food groups. We’re going to need to brainstorm alternative names for peanut butter, coconut cream, hamburgers, chocolate eggs and jelly babies – stat.

Or we could have our tofu steak and eat it too.

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