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A new study from the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) has determined that Australians know exactly what they are eating when they buy plant-based foods. The research is a first for the University of Technology Sydney offshoot. It follows a recent inquiry into plant-based food labelling, headed by Senator Susan McDonald.
Senator McDonald’s investigation was instigated following complaints from meat manufacturers that consumers were ‘accidentally’ selecting animal-free foods. The claim has since been deemed anecdotal. ISF has concluded that Australians are unlikely to be ‘duped’ and that animal products showcase confusing labelling more than vegan counterparts.
The storm before the calm
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee inquiry into product labelling focused on products using animal imagery and using specific descriptive terms. ‘Meat’, ‘beef’, and ‘lamb’ were cited as examples. Meat producers had claimed that their use was confusing consumers, though no verifiable or independent research was offered in support.
No Meat May and Vegan Australia worked together to bring ISF in to test the validity of the labelling befuddlement claims. The resulting independent survey sampled 1,014 consumers across all states and territories in Australia. Rural and urban locations were represented in full, to give an accurate split of plant-based food experiences and preconceptions. Participants were asked a series of questions and shown images of products, to see if they could identify the ingredients easily.
The results are in
The findings show that accidental wrong purchases are ‘highly unlikely’ to happen because of misleading labelling. Prolonged exposure to plant-based products was shown to diminish the likelihood even further. Only 4 percent of those asked had ever bought a plant-based product by mistake, with more than two-thirds admitting they were in a hurry or distracted when they chose an item, therefore did not read the label. 41 percent of plant-based eaters have bought an animal-based product by mistake, however.
65 percent of consumers revealed that terms such as ‘meat-free’ and ‘meat-less’ helo them avoid animal products. 57 percent felt specific terms did the same, with ‘beef-free’ given as an example. In a blow to the meat industry, 22 percent of people surveyed revealed a desire to eat less meat in favour of plant-based substitutes. Overall, meat-related terms were deemed to prove useful, not confusing.
“The Senate inquiry carries some significant implications for the plant-based food sector,” Dr Tani Khara, senior research consultant at the ISF, said in a statement. “Banning certain words from appearing on labels will make it harder for those consumers who want to buy meat substitutes to find what they are seeking. In the absence of any existing independent research on the issue, it was important that we spoke to consumers directly, to find out what Australians really think about plant-based products.”
Why the results are important
Global recommendations to reduce meat intake are getting harder to ignore. The EU is pushing the issue, in light of scientific links to cancer, while China has recently alluded to a need for domestic plant-based meats. Australia has a long relationship with meat, but change needs to come with government assistance. No Meat May hopes that the independent research into labelling will act as a catalyst.
“This research tells us what we already suspected; that this Senate inquiry drastically underestimates the intelligence of the average Australian, who is perfectly capable of discerning the difference between a meat product and its plant-based alternative despite the use of similar wording or imagery,” Ryan Alexander, co-founder of No Meat May, said in a statement. “With the average Australian eating four times the maximum amount of meat that is considered sustainable, and three times the amount considered healthy, we need our government to show leadership and support people shifting to less meat, and not to create barriers for people trying to do the right thing.”
Greg McFarlane, board director for Vegan Australia added that “the study exposes The National’s labelling enquiry as a farce.”
The great label debate
Objections to plant-based labelling feel like the swansong of an industry losing a step and Australia is not alone in looking at the issue. In 2020, the Meat Consumers Protection Act was passed in Oklahoma, making it essential for any meat-free products to say ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ on the packaging. In the same size font as the brand name. Tofurkey is now fighting against the legislation that would impose significant rebranding costs.
Japan has chosen to take a positive approach to plant-based labelling, bringing in clear guidelines that benefit everybody and prevent vegan food from being pigeonholed. It comes as the sector is identified as growing in popularity within the country. India and China already have clear parameters in place.
Lead photo by Thirdman from Pexels.