Labelling for imitation meat must be more clear

As the market for alternative proteins — imitation meats — continues to grow, the imperative for getting the labelling right grows with it.

Unfortunately, while regulations seem to tackle the issue reasonably well, enforcement is another matter.

The Canadian Pork Council, the Canadian Meat Council, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in the United States are fighting an uphill battle to ensure the imitation meats for sale in restaurants and supermarkets are labelled just that — imitation.

Here’s why it’s important. An online survey of 1,800 people by the NCBA showed that less than half of the respondents understood the label “plant-based beef” is actually a vegetarian product. When they saw packages that included the words “beef” or icons that featured a chicken or a cow many thought it meant there were small amounts of actual meat present. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they thought Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products contained real beef or some form of animal byproduct. More than a third of respondents thought processing required for imitation meats and real meat were similar, and many thought plant-based products are healthier, though the science on that issue is still very much debated.

And yet, a package found recently in a U.S. supermarket said, “Beyond chicken strips, grilled.” The supermarket’s pricing label said “beyond meat chicken grilled.”

Consumers could understandably be confused about whether there is actual meat in that product.

There is not.

All of this would sit just fine with the simulated meat producers, of course, but not so much with beef, pork and poultry producers who are working to ensure their animals are raised in a humane and sustainable way.

Unfortunately, most enforcement is done following claims filed of misleading advertising. The bureaucracies in Canada and the U.S. lack the resources to police word labels in grocery stores.

The stores themselves surely have a responsibility to see that packaging claims are truthful for their customers, so they should not be placing pricing labels like “beyond meat chicken grilled” on their shelves when it is actually simulated or imitation chicken.

The CCA’s view is that for a product to be named any kind of meat, it must meet the legal definition of meat, which, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is “the edible part of a carcass….”

That’s common sense, but it isn’t really happening.

So, it will be up to vigilant consumers to take up the issue, and file complaints to ensure follow-up. And meat producers and processors are going to have to fight for their markets in a more aggressive manner. Producer groups have education campaigns underway to educate consumers about the nutritional value of meat.

Consumers, for example, tend to believe that imitation burgers are more healthy, yet they contain enormous amounts of sodium compared to beef burgers. Many nutritionists and food scientist are not convinced these imitation products are healthier. It may depend on the diet or health conditions of the consumer.

Beef, for example, is one of the most available sources of high-quality protein, and is high in iron, zinc and B vitamins. Consumers do not seem to know this. Many believe there is a degree of equivalency between plant-based imitation meat and the real thing, even when it comes to processing, in a time when nutritionists are advising people to eat less processed foods.

Producers appreciate the reality of competition, but fairness in labelling is a requirement of fair competition.

Consumers and producers must be energetic in their complaints to the CFIA about food labelling. Eventually, the bureaucracy will get tired of following up and find a way to take the lead.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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