Senate debates

Tuesday, 27 September 2022


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee; Additional Information

5:29 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, Senator Sterle, I present additional information received by the committee on its inquiry into the definitions of meat and other animal products.

5:30 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to speak to the meat definitions inquiry because the report of definitions of meat and other animal products inquiry is a timely examination of the food labelling regulatory framework intended to benefit and protect consumers.

Definitions matter. We use them every day. We couldn't function as human beings or as a society without them. The amount of information contained in just a simple definition is extraordinary, and it's particularly important for people making decisions about what to put into their mouths.

Food categories have become increasingly blurred, and claims on plant based proteins have not been clearly regulated. Organics, free range and other raising-claimed categories are overseen by the Australian Consumer Law, while nutritional and compositional labelling are overseen by the Department of Health and Aged Care. However, the department of health does not have matching policing or investigative powers.

The growth of new protein categories such as plant-based, cultured, and blended animal-and-plant based proteins is recognised as providing consumers with new sources of protein. An increasing world population and pressure on arable farming land by encroaching urban zoning are competing needs that are, in part, addressed by manufactured proteins.

The perception of competition between the traditional category of meat protein and manufactured plant-based protein was not borne out in consumer or consumption trends. It appears that the two categories are growing in size, in line with the growing hungry world, and it is in Australia's interest to be a part of the growth of both sectors, utilising our reputation as a producer of high-quality produce, both animal and plant, and high food standards.

What is missing is the clarity for the consumer. While industry sectors will argue the relative benefits of one over another by nutrition, sustainability and environmental standards, the consumer is not benefiting if the labelling does not clearly define which category a product belongs to. Consumers are increasingly well informed and educated about ingredient and nutrition labelling, but the use of animal terms and imagery on plant based products is not adding to the ease of use of busy consumers. While it appears most plant based protein product manufacturers do use clear labelling and terms, such as plant based burger, there are no labelling standards to ensure that animal terms or images are not used on the product packaging of plant based proteins.

Anecdotally, since this inquiry began, awareness of this issue has grown considerably following the associated consultation and media interest. This may explain why groups such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Food and Grocery Council stated that they had little or no feedback, yet media reports and consumer surveys had thousands of responses.

However, the committee heard that, since Food Standards Australia New Zealand, FSANZ, made changes to section 1.1.1—13 of the Food Standards Code in 2016, labelling and claims on plant based proteins have not been clearly regulated. Members of the agriculture industry spoke of their frustration with the consultation process on the proposed change in 2016, which focused solely on dairy products, meaning other affected industries, including the meat industry, were not consulted on the changes or even made aware of them until the proposed changes were signalled by a media release. The result is that the definitions for dairy were altered to allow manufactured products to use animal terms and to appropriate implied claims of equivalency. This pathway has subsequently been used by manufacturers of plant based proteins.

As the new protein category in Australia expands from plant based to cultured—trialling in Japan and others—and blended animal and plant proteins, Australia has an opportunity to identify the best regulator—health, consumer or other—and mandatory labelling requirements. Domestic labelling guidelines are important to protect the existing and significant export market, which has clear definitions of meat, and to protect the new protein market. Categories such as organic and free range may also be seeking greater clarity on labelling claims, and it is important that there is a national standard that aligns with mandatory standards found in existing legislation. The alignment between domestic and international standards will provide all stakeholders with clear guidance and enforcement by the ACCC, which has the powers and resources to address improper labelling and marketing practices.

People are more diet conscious now than ever before, whether it be toward allergic reactions, to watch their waistline or to show care about how or from where their food is sourced. This is why we have labels on foods and why we have long-established definitions for food. Wrong definitions could literally be the difference between life and death for some people.

The Senate inquiry into meat definitions is important. It's why the coalition is interested in it. The rise of plant based proteins has been exponential. Therefore, the need to clearly define what a food is has grown in importance. Organic food consumers want certainty in definitions. Vegans would be mortified to find out their vegetable lasagne contained meat. Likewise, those wanting animal proteins would be bitterly disappointed to know that instead of a simple piece of beef they had bought a highly processed plant alternative.

The inquiry didn't seek to influence food choices; it aimed to make these choices easier and clearer. During the hearings we saw some extraordinary and, at times, dishonest lengths to which some plant protein makers go to market their products. Terms normally associated with animals were displayed on packaging in big letters, and the words 'plant based' or 'meat free' were barely visible. The packaging also features the animals that are not used in the food. If you're a person who has English as a second language, are dyslexic, have poor eyesight or have a disability, word association and imagery are important tools to use when choosing food. You may not recognise the word 'fillet', but you would see the word 'beef' and a picture of a cow on the package and be fairly confident that the food is beef. However, if the word 'beef' is in large letters and the words 'plant based' are in small letters and there's a picture of a cow on the pack, you can see how these compromised consumers would be misled into choosing a fillet of plant based protein. The same applies to people who are simply time poor, which is very common in today's world. You see the word 'chicken' on a box and a picture of a chicken. You grab it and race home, only to find you've grabbed a vegetarian product.

Critics of this inquiry have scoffed that people should learn to read or they should choose a plant based product, and they just have to be more careful. But people choose what they eat for a range of very good reasons. The term 'buyer beware' would appear to hold some weight, but I would argue that it shouldn't apply to people wanting simple truth in labelling. Other criticisms of the inquiry included that we should also change the name of baby oil, peanut butter and hotdogs, because those products didn't contain babies, butter or dogs. I laughed at first, but then I realised these people were serious. The argument fails because these products aren't trying to market themselves as containing babies, butter or dogs, whereas many vegetable products were trying to pass themselves off as containing meat from animals. The best example in common usage today of substituted terms is margarine, a product undoubtedly sold as a butter substitute, but which has its own unmistakable and clearly visible name.

An issue for consumers is the fact that plant based proteins are processed, contain chemicals you've possibly never heard of, and are not nutritionally equivalent. This isn't an issue if consumers know what they're eating, but the committee have a concern that plant based proteins are marketed as being more healthy than animal protein, when plant proteins do contain chemicals and additives compared to animal products.

It's not just consumers who deserve to know what they are eating; the animal industry deserves free air to market its products. Since 1997, about $5 billion has been collected from red meat producers in the form of levies which are used to fund research, development and marketing of red meat as safe, healthy and nutritious, but this work is undermined if the industry is not allowed to protect its own descriptions and names. Last year, the CEO of Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, was quoted as saying he wants to end all animal farming by 2035. This goal adds a sinister element to the sector, deliberately trying to equate its products with animal products.

The committee acknowledges the submissions and testimony from all who took the time to give evidence. I'd like to thank the witnesses who gave testimony and the many interested parties who made written submissions. It is only by having robust discussions that we can achieve harmony and clarity. I also want to thank the committee members, including co-chair Glenn Sterle and Senator Whish-Wilson, for their diligence and interest. I commend this report.

5:40 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also participated in this inquiry. I mean this genuinely, and I really wish I didn't have to say it, but, in the 10 years I've been in the Senate, this inquiry is the biggest waste of time and taxpayers' money that I have seen.

I want to note firstly that, very unusually, this inquiry didn't come as a reference inquiry. It should have, so that the Senate, including Senator McDonald's colleagues, would have voted on it. This came as a reference inquiry dressed up as a legislation committee inquiry. Senator McDonald put this through the legislation committee with no discussion or democratic process with other senators, and then she chaired it herself.

I said to the Labor Party only a month or so ago that I do not think it's good process in the Senate for governments to put up their own references inquiries and write their own reports. I participated as much as I could. It was a conga line of farmers, and I felt bad for the farmers, because I think some of them genuinely thought there was an opportunity to actually get regulatory change from this inquiry. It was an opportunity for Senator McDonald and the National Party to call on some of their rusted-on constituency and come to present evidence on how plant based foods are somehow a threat to their existence and to their livelihoods.

I admit today that I could tell there was some genuine anger and frustration from some of these stakeholders. But I felt very sad that they were drawn into some kind of culture war that was never going to deliver an outcome for them, because there was no substantive evidence presented at all that the labelling on plant based food is somehow undermining the red meat industry or animal agriculture—in fact, quite the opposite.

Details were laid out by a number of credible witnesses, including the CSIRO and others, that said that yes, the plant based sector has a very bright future. I think that's something we should all be celebrating, no matter our political colour, because it's jobs for farmers, it's Australian exports, it's gross national product and it's a whole bunch of other things, as well as providing choice and alternatives for people. But we also heard that the red meat industry, for example, also has massive growth protections in the years and decades to come.

This was nothing but a thinly disguised attack on the plant based food industry, and it made me very sad to see the Senate, and taxpayers' money, being used for this. It would be fine if we actually felt like somehow we were going to get some regulatory change around labelling, and I actually do think we need change around labelling, by the way. I think we need to have good seafood labelling, because we see imports of seafood and we don't know where the fish has come from, how it was caught, what gear was used, where it was landed or whether safe labour was attached to it. Our Australian fishery industries are competing with these products that we actually know very little about.

There are some very urgent labelling challenges if we want to look at that and look at changes to regulations and legislation, not to mention much better chain-of-custody labelling around Australian-made food as well. I've been on two inquiries before that have looked at labelling changes, and we've got some changes to our labels that show what's an Australian product and what's not, but they don't go anywhere near far enough.

Here we have an inquiry that is actually designed, in my opinion, to be set-up to attack the plant-based food industry. There are enormous opportunities for Australian farmers in plant-based food. Most farmers are diversifying. Yes, they might be running cattle or sheep but they're also potentially growing chickpeas or soybeans, or a whole range of other products. The example that was used by Senator McDonald that a vegan would be horrified if they were to find mince in their lasagne that they bought—and, yes, they would be—and that, therefore, someone who goes to buy a steak would be horrified that somehow they are eating a fake steak is a very poor comparison, because it is pretty obvious that plant foods are put in the forms of burgers. There are no alternatives to, for example, a steak, which is the example that was constantly raised throughout the Senate inquiry. You are probably likely to find almost as much vegetable protein and other matter, and a whole range of other additives, in meat burgers as you are in a vegetable burger. They are full of vegetables, as are a number of other meat products. Of course, when we got into that in the inquiry no-one wanted to talk about it.

It's no wonder that plant-based burgers are doing very well on the markets with the flexitarian consumers—people who want to reduce their consumption of meat but aren't vegan or vegetarian—because they actually taste like meat. They've got the same protein as meat. They have been very carefully designed to appeal to people who like meat. They provide choice. They come in the form of a burger and some other very clearly labelled packets. There is no way you could mistake a chicken fillet for an alternative plant-based product.

I agree that there potentially should be some changes around the use of animal logos on some of these products. Sometimes it was the farmers themselves who were saying that they want to see massive changes to labelling, or they do not want to see alternative meat products or plant-based meat products sold in the same isles as meat products because they accidentally picked up a vegan chicken vindaloo when they wanted a normal one. We never got any real evidence that this is a significant problem.

I'm not sure where it's going to go from here. The Greens have put in a very detailed dissenting report that talks about the definition of meat and other animal products; the consumer understanding of animal products; the regulatory framework, including Australian consumer law; and what would need to be done from here to actually help promote the opportunities for the protein sector across the board. This is something that I think Australians would be interested in, because they are increasingly eating plant-based products.

If we are going to feed the planet this century—we know we have a lot of challenges. We know plant-based foods will help provide the protein that we need, including in many Third World countries. It has been named by CSIRO and other people as one of the biggest investment opportunities for farmers and for investment companies wanting to get into exciting areas where there are opportunities to tackle environmental problems.

Of course, Meat & Livestock Australia and other groups recognise that they have to decarbonise. They recognise that consumers out there have concerns about the carbon footprint of their products. They are also, I hope, looking at what they can do to reduce their carbon footprints and reduce emissions from their sectors, because consumers, or customers, are voting with their feet. They are voting with their feet and they are seeking out alternative products.

I would say to senators, if they are interested in this, don't just read the government's own report into its own inquiry—which went through the legislation committee without any scrutiny from the Senate—please also read the Greens' dissenting report, which I think provides a much more balanced assessment of this topic.

5:49 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.