Government has defended its decision to ban the use of “meat names” for plant-based foods by saying it is to shield consumers from substandard or misleading products. But it is causing trouble with local processors, importers and retailers of vegan foods that mimic meat products. And according to one such processor, the ban flies in the face of the government’s own plans to introduce legislation to tackle climate change.
The furore follows an unexpected notice from South Africa’s department of agriculture, land reform and rural development that it would prohibit companies from using meat-related words in plant-based product names.
Reggie Ngcobo, spokesperson for the department, says the ban on meat analogues – meat substitutes, mock meat, faux meat or imitation meat – is in line with the terms of section 15 of the Agricultural Product Standards Act 119 of 1990, which deals with names prescribed and reserved for processed meat products.
Product names such as vegan or veggie biltong, mushroom biltong, plant-based meatballs, vegan nuggets, vegan BBQ ribs, plant-based bratwurst chorizo, red pepper vegetarian sausages and plant-based chicken-style strips have now all been banned.
“The ultimate objective of the regulations is to ensure that there is fair trade practices by ensuring that producers, manufacturers, importers and sellers of processed meat products adhere to the same applicable minimum standards,” Ngcobo tells Food For Mzansi.
“It’s also to ensure that consumers are protected against the sale of substandard products or misleading products that may purport to be genuine processed meat products as to the nature, substance, quality or other properties,” he adds
‘Major implications for fight against climate change’
The ban, some say, is not entirely unquestionable. According to Arleen Nel, communications manager at ProVeg South Africa, it is an extreme interpretation of existing regulations and in reality creating new legislation.
ProVeg is an international food awareness organisation with the mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040.
“What is worse, is that these measures are a major step backwards in the fight against climate change,” ProVeg says in a statement. “It goes against government’s own plans to introduce legislation to tackle climate change.”
Donovan Will, country director at ProVeg South Africa agrees. “Regulation such as this is exactly what we don’t need when the world’s scientists are telling us we urgently need to reduce our meat consumption to help brake dangerous global warming.”
The organisation says that government admits in its National Climate Change Response White Paper that land-based human activities such as forest clearing and unsustainable agricultural practices are increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) and reducing the earth’s ability to absorb GHGs.
“Yet, now, this very government’s department of agriculture, land reform and rural development is aiming to disrupt a prosperous economic sector that could help South Africans mitigate their carbon footprint,” Nel says.
“What the White Paper fails to mention is that the farming and eating of animals is a leading contributor to the global climate crisis, responsible for about 20% of GHG emissions, and that switching to a plant-based diet could reduce an individual’s food-related emissions by up to 50%.”
She says that the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report also confirmed that the world needed to shift to a more plant-based diet to keep within the 1.5 °C global warming limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Consumers ‘certainly not confused’
Meanwhile, there is pushback about Mzansi’s consumers being bamboozled by plant-based food names and the need to clear up any confusion.
“The regulation disrespects consumers,” Will says. “There is no evidence to show that people are confused by meaty names for plant-based foods. In fact, evidence from Australia, Europe and the US prove they are not confused.”
As long as products are clearly labelled as “meat-free”, “vegan” or “vegetarian”, the terminology is not misleading, ProVeg says. The organisation argues these products are merely marketed as alternatives to meat and don’t claim to be meat from an animal source.
“We really urge the government to overturn this regulation. At a time when countries are seeking ways to tackle climate change, we must do all we can to encourage a vibrant and innovative plant-based sector.”
The department maintains however that the regulations on the classification, packing and marking of processed meat products is very necessary. “Considering the widespread sale of meat analogue products that ride on the established names of processed meat products, the department wishes to impress upon all sellers of infringing meat analogue products to relabel their products accordingly or else risk the said products being seized in terms of section 8 of the Act.”
Ngcobo says the department would have no mercy on perpetrators as it is an offence in terms of section 11 of the Act to sell meat analogue products using product names prescribed for processed meat.
The way forward
“We are in the process of considering the legal remedies available to stakeholders and intend on engaging the department and hope to reach an amicable resolution,” Anna Jordan, director at the South African Vegan Society (SAVS) tells Business Insider SA this week.
She adds that the new measures would have catastrophic consequences on many stakeholders, namely producers of plant-based food products, retailers and consumers.
ProVeg says that similar restrictions on the naming of plant-based products, referred to as the “veggie burger ban” was proposed by the meat industry in Europe in 2019 but was defeated in the European Parliament in 2020 after a sustained campaign by ProVeg International and many other groups.
In the weeks to come, the department will assign someone to conduct an environmental scan to determine in real terms how widespread the sale of meat analogue products that use product names prescribed for processed meat products is.
“Once such information is gathered, the necessary planning towards seizure of the said products will be commenced with if they are still offered for sale in the Republic of South Africa,” Ngcobo says.
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