Australia's reputation as a meat-loving nation may be changing, as the past year saw a boom in sales of plant-based meat alternatives that seek to mimic the taste, texture, and appearance of animal products.
However, Australia's meat industry has hit out at the slew of plant-based alternatives entering the market for what it claims are the misleading ways they are presented to customers.
Plant-based meats, or plant-based proteins, are meat alternatives that take the form of many familiar meaty favorites, such as burger patties made from pea protein and braised "beef" made from shiitake mushrooms.
Valid concerns over the environmental and health implications of eating meat have seen these imitation products take off globally in recent years, particularly in the United States and China, the two nations that are the world's largest meat consumers.
According to a report by alternative proteins think tank Food Frontier, Australia, one of the world's highest per capita meat consumers, saw a 46 percent growth in sales of plant-based meat in fiscal 2020, alongside a doubling of the number of products available to consumers.
However, traditional meat industries have taken umbrage at the plant-based proteins popping up on Aussie supermarket shelves, arguing words like "meat" and "beef," or images of livestock on product packaging dupe customers into mistakenly buying what they think is meat.
"More and more of these plant-based products are being sold in supermarkets right around the country, and it's clear their labeling is becoming increasingly deceptive," said Veronica Papacosta, CEO of Seafood Industry Australia.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported similar challenges to labeling plant-based proteins in the United States and Europe. In France, plant-based products have been prohibited from using meat-related terms such as "sausage" and "steak" since 2018.
The concerns prompted a recent Senate inquiry in the country into the labeling standards of plant-based proteins and their alleged appropriation of Australian meat branding.
In August, a national survey of 1,000 people commissioned by the Australian meat, poultry and seafood industries showed six in 10 consumers are deceived by the current packaging used for plant-based proteins.
Respondents to the survey pointed to the use of animal imagery and the emphasis on meat descriptors when labeling "plant-based" products as the key sources of confusion.
"(It's) very confusing when images of animals are on packaging, when manufacturers try to make the product look like an animal product and when they name their products with very similar-sounding names to meat products," one respondent said.
Another indicated the tendency for the products to display the "meat words significantly larger and more prominent than the plant-based words" also confuses matters further.
Australia's meat, poultry and seafood industries argued the survey shows people who mistook at least one plant-based meat product for animal meat were more likely to be elderly, those who use English as a second language, or those who are low-income consumers.
However, the plant-based proteins sector disputes the legitimacy of the findings, with a spokesperson for the Alternative Proteins Council claiming the survey "uses questionable methodology that doesn't replicate an in-store experience."
Similar research by Food Frontier found that out of 252 plant-based meat products reviewed, 100 percent use one or more terms on front-label packaging to indicate they are meat-free, and only 8 percent use an "unmodified" meat term such as "beef" or "chicken."
"The plant-based nature of products is the motivation for consumer purchases," the APC spokesperson stressed.
Michael Fox, CEO of Australian plant-based meat company Fable Food Co. echoed the sentiment.
"Our whole value proposition is that our product isn't made from animals," said Fox, whose company uses shiitake mushrooms as the base of their alternative meat products.
"We don't want to confuse consumers...We want to do the complete opposite and make it very clear that our product is not made from animals," he said.
Instead, Fox says the labeling descriptors are necessary to communicate to customers what the product is and how they can consume it.
Using the example of Fable Food's plant-based "meaty mushroom burger", Fox suggested the words "burger" and "meaty" help to describe to consumers what the product is, and how they can expect it to taste, while clearly including the fact that it is made from mushrooms rather than meat.
"It's in that burger format you can eat up like a burger, it's made from mushrooms, and its taste is meaty. That, in my view, and I think in any reasonable person's view, is very clear," Fox said.
Sydney resident Sebastian Tattam, 27, a regular consumer of plant-based meat offerings, failed to see how the meat alternatives could be dubbed misleading.
When shown the five products used by the meat industries in their survey, Tattam felt it was "pretty obvious" that the products were plant-based, given they were all labeled as such.
"I don't think it's misleading," he said of a product emblazoned with the words "Chicken-free Chicken" alongside an image of the bird. "Their product is a substitute for chicken, so you have to make the reference in some way; otherwise, people wouldn't understand it," he said.
Evidence submitted to the Senate inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission regulatory body showed that of the more than half-million complaints it received over 18 months, only 11 were related to plant-based product labeling, most of which were from meat industry representative bodies.
Still, meat lobbyists are convinced there is a fine line between what they view as verging on false advertising and what the plant-based industries proclaim products to be. The tactics being employed, moreover, are more devious, they argue.
They have accused the plant-based protein makers of "a deliberate strategy to unfairly trade on the reputation of Australia's meat and livestock industries," Beef Central, an online beef news portal, reported.
According to the report, Red Meat Advisory Council Chair John McKillop complained in a letter to the Australian government of plant-based meats "piggy-backing" off the billions of dollars invested by the meat and livestock sector to establish their reputations.
The alternative proteins sector counters this argument, saying that leveraging such a reputation is in Australia's best interests, as the sector presents new opportunities for Australia's farmers and exporters.
"Australia, as a food exporting powerhouse, can and should leverage existing trade channels and the strength of our premium brand to increase the overall volume and value of our protein exports with new protein categories," the APC said in a statement on the inquiry.
With the global demand for meat projected to rise 73 percent by 2050, the alternative proteins body warned against mischaracterizing the inquiry as conventional proteins versus new proteins.
"The success of both industries will be necessary to meet the clear challenge ahead: to feed a world of 10 billion people by 2050 with finite resources," the APC said.
The inquiry is expected to present its report by February 2022.