The Fight for Meat-Free Meat Has Begun

Mann im Anzug mit Boxhandschuhen – der Kampf um die Produktbezeichnun Fleisch für Fleischalternativen
© fotogestoeber – stock.adobe.com

Worldwide, the consumption of purely plant-based foods is increasing, and with it the competition between various suppliers in the food industry. As a result of this change, there are increasing complaints from the meat industry about misleading product names and distortions by suppliers of animal-free meat products. The fight for meat-free meat has begun.

Plant-based alternatives to meat are a new major trend in the food industry, not least because of changing consumer habits. The number of vegan and vegetarian consumers has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Furthermore, there is growing awareness of environmental and health issues worldwide. Questions about animal welfare are even becoming a political issue. Behind this is an increasing interest in dealing with ethical and ecological problems, especially when it comes to our own health and nutrition.

Ultimately, global markets are also responding to changing consumer needs. Producers are now specialising in purely plant-based products, or are expanding their existing range to include vegan alternatives. Research and development in this area is also growing significantly, and many small, innovative start-ups are enriching the market with new ideas and creations. This is also attracting many investors who for their part have recognized the growing potential and continue to spur the market on with high capital investments.

The dispute over the right product name

With the rapid development of new plant-based meat alternatives, multi-million investments, catchy animal-free names and growing consumer interest, the worldwide struggle for the use of the word “meat” to describe plant protein products is also growing. Even in the area of “clean meat”, i.e. cultured laboratory meat, there are disputes over what the legitimate name for these products is.

In the USA, there is currently a dispute about the correct definition of meat. A recent petition from the US Cattleman’s Association and the National Farmers Union, directed to the US Department of Agriculture, has demanded that the term ‘meat’ should only be used for conventional animal products. The association states: “Products not derived from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the traditional way may not be marketed as meat products.” This requirement applies to all alternative protein sources as well as to laboratory meat.

In New Zealand, the company Sunfed Meats is causing a sensation with its product “Chicken Free Chicken”. The purely plant-based chicken alternative is advertised with the slogan “good for us, good for the planet, good for the animals”, and is so successful that supply cannot keep pace with demand. This finally prompted the New Zealand Poultry Industry Association to file a misleading labelling complaint with the New Zealand Commerce Commission at the end of 2017. A reply from the authority is still pending because the situation in this case is extremely complicated. The international law firm Allens is highlighting two important issues in this case – firstly, whether reasonably minded consumers could really be deceived into believing that the product is of animal origin, and secondly, whether consumers could be made to believe that meat and plant-based products have the same nutritional value.

Another example is France. The French Parliament has adopted a new law which is to enter into force at the end of May and redefine the use of the term ‘meat’ with regards to product names. Under the new regulation, the French Ministry of Agriculture will be charged with establishing a list of animal-related product names which may only be used to describe animal products. Furthermore, the proportion of plant-based substances in products that can be marketed as being of animal origin will be regulated. This is part of the strategy of the meat industry, which has a strong lobby in France to protect its status. Whether and how this new legal situation will work remains to be seen. The developments here, however, could also be of interest to other countries.

No clear solution in sight

The dispute over misleading and legitimate product names will probably remain a thorny issue in the future and will continue to preoccupy the food industry. There are always fears of profit and loss behind these conflicts of interest. Established companies in the meat industry fear for their sales and profit figures, their market shares and not least for their good reputation. But the boundaries are not always as rigid as in the above examples. Two of the largest global meat producers – Cargill and Tyson Foods – have both invested in the American start-up Memphis Meats, which is a pioneer in meat alternatives. And many others are doing the same.

Duncan Williamson, head of the Food Policy Department of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), believes that concerns about the use of meat-like terms for plant-based products are an overreaction. “By raising this issue, opponents are creating a false problem. I haven’t seen a single sign of customers being misled. Most of the evidence I’ve seen shows that people know exactly whether it’s meat. People know that an “Impossible Burger” is not meat. People know that a Linda McCartney sausage is not meat sausage, but textured soy. People aren’t stupid. There’s a place for everything, and I think the meat industry is worrying unnecessarily.”

Williamson also stresses the importance of the major environmental problems facing humanity. Examples include climate change and the loss of biodiversity, but also problems such as antibiotic resistance and health problems caused by excessive meat consumption. “It is absolutely crucial that we rebalance the food system, and a reduction in meat consumption is a necessary part of it. We have to do it,” he adds.

The fight for meat-free meat is certainly still in its infancy, though the waves it is making are already very high. It remains to be seen how it will all pan out.