Plant-based protein. Simulated meat. Alternative protein. When it comes to labelling fake meat, what’s in a name?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
Some say using words like ‘burger’ or ‘sausage’ to describe vegetarian fare is misleading.
“To me, it’s obvious we’re producing the best meat product, because everybody else wants to call theirs ‘meat,’” said Nanton rancher and feedlot owner Bob Lowe, who is president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“If they want to do it and people want to eat it, that’s completely fine with me — but let’s not have those people think that they’re actually eating meat.”
But for others, it’s much ado about nothing.
“Who is pushing for it? I don’t hear consumers pushing it,” said Sylvan Lake farmer Allison Ammeter, who is chair of the Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta and a director with Alberta Pulse Growers and Protein Industries Canada.
“I don’t hear anybody going to the grocery store and saying, ‘I can’t read your labels.’ I don’t see letters written to the editor saying, ‘I bought a product and I got it home and it wasn’t what I thought it was.’”
St. Brides-area producer Don Shepert agrees.
“If you buy it and use it, you know right away it’s something different,” said Shepert, who grows pulses but also raises cattle. “From that standpoint, I don’t find it confusing.”
But the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has a different view.
“In the food and drug regulations as they’re written right now, meat has a defined legal term. It’s defined legally as deriving from an animal carcass,” said Lauren Martin, government and food industry relations manager for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
“Using the language ‘simulated meat’ is contrary to that legal definition in the regulations.”
And the debate is coming to a head in Canada right now.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is conducting on online consultation on proposed changes to the guidelines for faux meat products, including labelling, advertising, and composition of these products. (A link to the consultation, which ends Dec. 3, can be found at www.inspection.gc.ca.)
But even in consulting about the issue, the CFIA refers to these products as “simulated meat,” which in and of itself could be confusing for consumers.
“These guidelines are not for the lawyer drafting them or the person enforcing them. They’re supposed to be for consumers to make an informed decision at the grocery store,” Martin said.
“If you’re a hurried consumer making purchasing decisions for your family, and you’re in and out of a grocery store in 15 minutes, maybe you miss the word ‘simulated.’”
Are consumers confused?
That’s what has happened in the States, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American counterpart to the CCA.
In an online survey of 1,800 consumers in February, almost two-thirds thought that plant-based products like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Lightlife contain real beef or an animal byproduct, the organization said.
And it’s because of labelling and advertising, the cattle group said.
Beyond Meat, for instance, uses the image of a cow in its logo, despite being entirely derived from plants (though its packaging prominently displays the words “plant based”).
“Under these (proposed CFIA) guidelines, even just the image of an animal is allowed on a product that doesn’t contain anything derived from that animal,” said Martin.
“In the marketing world, individuals can use whatever type of language they want. As we have seen, some of these alternative protein products have used more disparaging terms to talk about the beef industry than others.
“That’s the risk. If the government of Canada allows for competing terms to be used, it’s possible for the advertising space — which is a much bigger arena — to play with more disparaging comments.”
Labelling is a debate that’s also been raging in Europe for a while but in October, the European Union rejected a proposal to ban the word ‘burger’ for plant-based patties (even though three years ago it did ban using ‘milk’ or ‘butter’ to describe non-dairy products).
But with more and more plant-based meat alternatives finding their way to the meat case alongside the real deal (the market has been growing by eight per cent annually since 2010), there needs to be clarity to the regulations, say some in the beef sector.
“When we look at the definition of meat — the edible part of a carcass — and then start calling things ‘plant-based meat,’ it brings in confusion. Is it a carcass-derived meat, or is this a lab- or plant-derived meat?” said Kelly Smith-Fraser, a Pine Lake rancher and chair of Alberta Beef Producers.
“I prefer the term ‘plant-based protein,’ because at least that clearly defines what a consumer is purchasing.”
But others say consumers can figure it out on their own — just as they did when veggie burgers and soy milk arrived at their grocery stores.
“We’ve been well trained to read ingredient lists, and now they’re saying this might be misleading to consumers? You’re not giving any credit to consumers there,” said Ammeter. “It is a non-issue, in my opinion.”
Consumers — especially young ones — have become increasingly familiar with plant-based proteins as they look for a “sustainable alternative,” said Shepert, who is also chair of Alberta Pulse Growers.
And that’s a good thing for Canadian agriculture, he said.
“From my perspective, pulses are great, but so is beef,” he said. “We shouldn’t be quibbling and quarrelling about these things. We should be working together to feed the world and to make sure that our products are all top notch, safe, and sustainable.”
For Ammeter, the labelling debate isn’t “a problem looking for a solution,” but rather, “an attempt to create a problem where there isn’t a problem.”
The beef industry doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s not about protecting the term ‘meat’ for only meat users,” said Martin. “We think that’s probably the clearest thing for the Canadian government to do, but it’s not about meat versus other products. We’re not here to make a competitive statement. It’s about precedents.”
That clarity is also important in the global marketplace, Smith-Fraser added.
“We need to make sure that, between Canada and the United States, our regulatory requirements are aligned — our terminologies, our definitions, and our labelling requirements,” she said.
“That way, it’s consistent for the consumers, and it will lessen any confusion.”
But regulations come with costs, said Ammeter.
“Everybody needs to be aware that, as you go down the road of turning this into an issue, you might be adding inefficiencies, extra costs, and regulation demands that require all kinds of extra hoops,” she said.
“Most of us know that all of that costs money and hurts us all in the long run. Let’s not wander into something that ends up costing the industries a bunch of money and really doesn’t gain us anything.”
For Shepert, it’s “frustrating” that people on both sides of the issue are having these debates instead of working together to grow both industries.
“I’m a pulse grower, and I have beef, and I really wish we could all just work together,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who are very protective of their beef, and that’s fine, but why be protective of it? We’ve got a great product that’s still widely accepted and widely used. It’s not like it’s going to stop our beef production any time soon.”
But as a rancher, Lowe is proud of what he produces — and he wants consumers to understand what sets his beef apart from the plant-based alternatives.
“I believe consumers should have a choice of anything they want, but we don’t want the advertising to be misleading,” said Lowe.
“It’s not built on truth. It’s not built on science. So it’s up to us to make sure people know the truth, and the truth is, eat what you want, but know what you’re eating.”