In a move to protect authentic meat products from “meat sounding” denominations, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) in South Africa called for a ban on “meaty” names for plant-based foods. So, terms such as vegetable “meatballs”, vegan “nuggets”, plant-based “ribs”, veggie “biltong”, and vegan “bratwurst”, which explicitly refer to meat products, can no longer be used. This is a significant step forward to protect meat products and consumers, mirroring what has happened with dairy products in Europe.

The marketing of plant-based foods as alternative meat products is, in fact, essentially fraud, to the detriment of consumers. Why? Because plant-based products are not like-for-like copies of animal products, both from a nutritional, sensory and health point of view. DALRRD wrote to processors, retailers and importers of these “fake” products, informing them of the decision and the names of the products concerned, as they did not meet the definition of processed meat in the country. So, according to the Department, words such as “nuggets”, “ribs”, and “biltong” should be reserved exclusively for natural meat products and cannot be used in any way for plant-based foods.

For this reason, the Food Safety Agency has been instructed to remove all plant-based products using names that traditionally refer to animal-based products from shop shelves. This initiative was strongly criticised by Donovan Will, director of ProVeg South Africa, as for him, the regulation disrespects consumers since there is no evidence to show that people are confused by meaty names for plant-based foods. This international food-awareness organisation works to transform the global food system by replacing conventional animal-based products with plant-based and lab-grown alternatives.

This decision in South Africa echoes recent debates on the same subject in Europe. In 2019, while the CAP was voted in Parliament, a significant part of the debates revolved around a single amendment that proposed regulating plant-based denominations. After a caricatured debate punctuated with punchlines, the proposal was defeated in the European Parliament. This debate was an opportunity to see powerful lobbying from ProVeg International and a coalition of major industrialists and NGOs in Brussels. However, in the face of the industrial development of plant-based or laboratory cultured products, the question of what constitutes a “meat alternative” has only just begun, and the debate is as complex as it is exciting.   

France prohibited, almost at the same time, the use of “meaty” denominations to market food made of plant proteins, with considerable penalties in the event of non-compliance. Other European countries are now considering similar approaches, and some have already extended it to non-food misleading alternatives such as “vegan leather” in Portugal, as we highlighted previously.

So, why are so many countries starting to legislate on this, and why is this debate so fundamental? In reality, as marketing professionals know very well, the classic denominations of meat products have a rich universe. They are an easy way to promote certain qualities and properties of the products that would be difficult (and very expensive) to establish through new communication campaigns. The temptation to hijack this heritage is all the more remarkable, as meat denominations have never ‘required’ protection until now, as their success is part of a rich and long history of traditions. In addition, running an aggressive marketing campaign purely around the ‘alternative’ angle means that marketers don’t need to provide information on alternative products’ actual nature or production methods. Both plant-based and cellular copies of meat products are ultra-processed foods with a long list of ingredients that cannot replace meat in terms of nutritional intake.

And this aspect was underlined by the WHO too, which, in a recent factsheet, flagged that many of the plant-based substitutes “also known as analogues, can be defined as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which means they have a high energy density and tend to be high in sodium, saturated fat and free sugars, and lacking in dietary fibre and vitamins and minerals found in unprocessed foods (including animal-based foods) and minimally processed plant-based foods.” The WHO factsheet warns about potential consequences for population health due to the consumption of those alternatives.

What is evident with the growing trend to mimic natural livestock-derived food products is that the boundaries will become increasingly blurred in the years to come. Undoubtedly, the debate will return to Brussels in the years to come!.