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Food fight: Cause of beef between meat aristocrats and plant-based defenders

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By Dominic Naidoo

Sometimes I find myself questioning what exactly our wonderful national departments actually do and a few weeks ago, I was asking myself the same question when the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development banned the use of meat-related words in plant-based or vegan product names.

Plant-based products which carried names such as vegan veggie biltong, plant-based meatballs, vegan nuggets, and plant-based bratwurst were among those which got the chop as they did not meet the definition of “processed meat.”

I tried looking up the Department’s definition of “processed meat” with little success. Its website is as outdated and difficult to navigate as the very government it represents. I threw in the towel after 30 minutes. I’m not Rocky Balboa.

After the ruling, the department went on to inform processors, retailers and importers of meat-alternative products of the decision and of product names affected on 22 June. This meant that every vegan, vegetarian and plant-based meat replica is already on the shelves, in warehouses and en route had to be recalled due to nothing more than local meat producers throwing a tantrum about words on the packaging.

According to the department, words like ‘nuggets’, ‘ribs and ‘biltong’ are now reserved for processed meat products only and cannot be used for plant-based products of a similar nature.

It has instructed the SA Food Safety Agency that any plant-based products using names that traditionally refer to animal-based products must be taken off the shelves.

The new policy came after years of lobbying by the South African Meat Processors Association (SAMPA) which argued that using meaty names for meat alternative products was misleading to the consumer. Yes, SAMPA basically argued that South African consumers are too stupid to tell the difference between real meat and a meat alternative so they complained to big brother about the new kids on the block taking over their turf.

SAMPA CEO Peter Gordon told that the association’s position had been consistent and clear regarding plant-based product names and descriptions should not “ride on the back of existing animal protein products or be misleading to the consumer.” Oh please. The entirety of human existence is based on our ability to evolve and improve, to do better and be better. But this is too much to ask of dear Peter.

Outside of countries and cultures where abstaining from animal products is part of spiritual or moral beliefs, diets that limit or excluded meat, dairy products, and eggs have often been seen as fads, especially in the West. A few years ago, people who identified as vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based were often viewed as tree-hugging hippies or Greenpeace activists, rather than everyday people.

Liana Minassian of the Food Revolution Network said that “references to veganism and other plant-based diets in the mainstream media were also often negative. Many headlines made veganism sound like a surefire way to become nutrient deficient, even using fear tactics to prevent parents from raising their kids on plant foods. Plus, meat-free food options used to be difficult to find outside of certain stores, and even then, they weren’t always appetising. But now, all that is changing, quickly and in a big way.”

Back in 2017, Nestlé (the largest food company in the world) predicted that plant-based foods will continue to grow and the trend is “here to stay.”

Three years later, in 2020, global plant-based milk and meat sales soared by over $29 billion dollars (R479 billion) with an August 2021 Bloomberg article projecting an increase to over $162 billion by the end of the decade.

This means that plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are already making up nearly 8% of the so-called global “protein foods” market. And according to the Bloomberg Intelligence Report, plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030.

Furthermore, nearly half of all major food companies, including Kroger, Nestlé, and Unilever, have put dedicated plant-based teams in place to help them develop new products to compete in the marketplace. It’s pretty safe to say that Nestlé’s prediction about plant-based foods was

accurate and if anything, may have understated the reality. But why the huge shift?

One of the biggest incentives for adopting a plant-based lifestyle is the environmental concerns surrounding animal agriculture which is responsible for 18% of carbon dioxide emissions globally along with staggering amounts of water needed to farm and process meat products.

For example, according to figures from the Water Footprint Network, it takes 4325 litres of water to produce a kilo of chicken, 15 500 litres of water per kilo of beef and 10 412 litres per kilo of mutton.

In terms of carbon footprint, the University of Oxfords Our World in Data found that the production of a kilo of beef produces 100kg of emissions, lamb racks up 40kg and chicken, 10kg of emissions per kilo.

People have also turned towards plant-based foods for ethical concerns. Living conditions and treatment of livestock, as shown by documentaries including “What the Health,” “Cowspiracy,” and “Food, Inc” are enough for some to shift their habits.

Health concerns have also provided people with a reason to change. Plant-based foods typically have lower sodium levels and fatty acids than their animal-based counterparts, and cholesterol is completely absent. Studies estimate that these boons may indicate a lower risk for heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. Donovan Will, country director at ProVeg South Africa, criticised the new regulations, saying they were “exactly what we don’t need when the world’s scientists are telling us we urgently need to reduce our meat consumption to help break dangerous global warming”.

“The regulation also disrespects consumers. 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,” he said.

Several countries have applied restrictions to plant-based foods in the past few weeks, including South Africa, France and Turkey. Further restrictions are being considered in Belgium and the United States.

“These regulations are counter-productive and based on misunderstandings,” said Jasmijn de Boo, vice president of ProVeg International. Plant-based foods are a vital key to solving the climate crisis as well as ensuring economic growth,” she said.

“Many meat and dairy companies themselves know this, which is why they are investing in both plant-based and animal-based foods, and in some cases switching to plant-based foods entirely.”

Google Trends data shows an impressive worldwide increase in the interest in veganism from 2004 to 2022. Countries with the most vegan searches include Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Austria, and New Zealand.

An early 2022 survey from dating app OkCupid found that 90% of its clients say caring about the planet, and, specifically, climate change, is important in their romantic matches. Millennials are the largest group of OkCupid users, and they may also be responsible for the push towards more plant-based eating because of concerns around climate change.

According to a study conducted by Ipsos Retail Performance, between 2004 and 2019, there was a 30-fold increase in vegans in the United States, from 290,000 in 2004 to almost 10 million in 2019. In the UK, the number of people identifying as vegans in 2016 had increased by 360%, compared to just a decade before, according to research commissioned by the Vegan Society in partnership with Vegan Life magazine.

In Canada, there has been a 250% increase in vegetarians. There are now over 2.3 million vegetarians and 850,000 vegans, according to 2020 data. Canada’s most recent Dietary Guidelines, published in 2019, emphasise eating plant-based foods specifically recommending choosing plant-based proteins more often than animal-derived ones and avoiding processed meat and saturated fat.

In Portugal, vegetarianism rose by 400% between 2007 and 2017 and has likely continued to grow since then. This is according to research carried out by Nielsen. Interestingly — thanks to the work of Portugal’s Vegetarian Association, starting in 2017 it became the first country in the world to pass a law that requires all government facilities, including prisons, hospitals, and schools, to offer at least one vegan option on their menus.

Plant-based diets are growing across Asia. The Food-Based Dietary Guidelines of China, last updated in 2016, encourage consuming plenty of vegetables and soybeans. One reason for this is that the Chinese government wants to encourage the nation’s 1.3 billion people to reduce their meat intake by 50% to benefit both health and the environment.

In Australia, between 2014 and 2016 the number of food products carrying a vegan claim rose by 92%. According to 2020 reports, Australia is second only to the UK in terms of plant-based eating preferences.

Even mainstream US health organisations are recommending a plant-based diet. This includes, among others, Kaiser Permanente, the largest healthcare organisation in the US; the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee; and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Instead of implementing archaic and, quite frankly stupid, regulations, the department should be promoting a less meat-heavy and more plant-based diet to South Africans and encouraging easier access to the market for plant-based food producers.

Imagine a sector so scared of alternatives that it has to run to the regulator to change a few words on packaging thinking that will alter international trends. Whatever you want to call the soya sausage or seitan steak, I am still going to eat it.

Bottom line is that, as a country and as a species, we need to drastically reduce our meat intake. We have evolved the intelligence (well, most of us) to know that the amount of meat we eat is not environmentally sustainable and that something has to change. Why are we still doing this?

Naidoo is an environmental journalist and activist.

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