Identity crisis for plant-based foods in South Africa as government bans use of meat-like terms

SOUTH AFRICA – The plant-based food category has showcased fast growth over the years, edging out a substantial market share for itself.

However, questions have arisen as to whether the alternative products should adopt the identity of their traditional counterparts.

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South Africa’s Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) is reported to have imposed a ban on the use of meat-like terms on plant-based product labels.

Shockingly, in the same vein, JUST Egg products may be seized from Woolworths stores in the country.

The Department describes the use of phrases such as “mushroom biltong”, “plant-based meatballs” and “vegan nuggets” as “illicit” because the products do not meet the definition of “processed meat” under the country’s Regulation No.R.1283.

Other terms on the black list include vegan veggie biltong, egan BBQ ribs, plant-based bratwurst, Chorizo and red pepper vegetarian sausages and pant-based chicken-style strips

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In a letter addressed to “all processors, importers and retailers of meat analogues”, the DALRRD instructed that meat analogues “must not use the product names prescribed and reserved for processed meat products”.

The letter, according to Bizcommunity, also instructs the Food Safety Agency (Pty) Ltd, the assignee designated for the inspection of processed meat products, to seize and remove any plant-based products using names that traditionally refer to animal-based products in terms of section 8 (“Seizures”) of the Agricultural Product Standards Act 199 of 1990 (“the APS Act”).

Further to that, following a supposed meeting between DALRRD and the Food Safety Agency, another letter was sent, this time to Woolworths.

The supermarket giant was instructed that the plant-based egg substitute Just Egg could not be sold as “eggs” as it does not hail from domestic fowl.

In this letter, the Food Safety Agency has given Woolworths a week (7 days) to rectify the non-conformance. If Woolworths does not comply, the Food Safety Agency will seize all “Just Egg” products on Woolworths shelves.

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According to the letter, the intention of the Just Egg product found at Woolworths is “to substitute or imitate eggs as defined in regulation R.345 dated 20 March 2020, and the vegan product thus competes directly with eggs as defined in the said regulations”.

The letter further claims that the use of the name/claim “eggs” in the descriptions “just egg” and “4 folded plant eggs” is regarded as “misleading”.

Heavy handed regulation irks lobby body

In response to the development, food awareness organisation ProVeg South Africa said, “What is seemingly an interpretation of existing regulations, is in fact an extreme interpretation and is, essentially, creating new legislation.

“The measure also flies in the face of the government’s own plans to introduce legislation to tackle climate change.”

It pointed out that in the National Climate Change Response White Paper, the South African government admits that “land-based human activities, such as forest clearing and unsustainable agricultural practices, are not only increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from these sources, but are also reducing the earth’s natural 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,” ProVeg said.

“This is a huge step backwards in the government’s fight against climate change,” Donovan Will, country director at ProVeg South Africa said. “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.”

ProVeg said the meat and egg industries are essentially claiming a monopoly on the term “meat” and “egg” and all other related terminology, where the alternatives should be able to use these terms because they effectively mimic the taste, texture and use of the products they replace.

According to ProVeg, as long as products are clearly labelled as “meat-free”, “vegan”, or “vegetarian”, the terminology is not misleading. They are marketed as alternatives to meat and do not claim to be meat from an animal source.

The battle of identity has been previously witnessed in the international markets as the European Parliament voted to ban the use of dairy-related terms for all plant-based alternatives in 2020, to prevent the use of dairy descriptors, such as ‘almond milk’ and ‘vegan cheese’, cream-imitation, as well as ‘yogurt-style’ for dairy-free products in Europe.

The fight has also been presented in the USA, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 signalling plans to start enforcing a federal standard that defines “milk” as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

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