SA’s faux meat labelling row explodes – now to court

The Consumer Goods Council of SA (CGCSA), which represents 9,000 members, has launched an urgent court case to interdict the government’s planned seizure of imitation meat products.  

The Food Safety Agency, a private entity appointed by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), issued a letter on Tuesday 16 August to retailers and food producers saying it would seize vegan products with names that it claims are reserved for meat.

The seizures are set to begin on August 22, after being delayed for 30 days after a heated meeting between government officials and the meat-analogue industry, who say in terms of their interpretation of the law, the labels are not in breach.. 

The CGCSA said in court papers it filed on Wednesday 17 August that it was caught by surprise after spending almost two months trying to resolve issues amicably with the government and its partners.

The body which counts Pick n Pay, Shoprite and Spar as members, says it has no choice but to go to court after negotiations failed and its members were given only three working days’ notice of seizures.

The DALRRD in late June put out directives saying that processed meat regulations specify that certain products such as burgers, nuggets, sausages, patties and meatballs must contain certain quantities of meat. 

But in legal papers the CGCSA says those regulations actually state that meat imitation products are exempt from its rules. 

The body, which also represents large food producers, accuses the Food Safety Agency of acting unlawfully, saying there are no regulations that empower it or the DALRRD to decide that names belong exclusively to the meat industry.

“It is unconscionable that the Food Safety Agency sees it fit to enter upon all manners of premises and simply seize meat analogue [imitation] products it is not empowered to deal with in the first place.”

It has proposed creating new regulations for the plant-based food industry.

In court papers, the CGCSA says seizures of goods would be costly and relabelling is also a costly exercise for both members and consumers. 

While the Agricultural Products Standards Act and Consumer Protection Act says consumers should not be misled, there is simply no evidence that any false impression was created by terms such as vegan nuggets and mushroom biltong, argues the CGCSA. 

It says the Food Safety Agency should have a warrant for seizures as required by the Agricultural Products Standards Act.

However, lawyer food industry attorney, Janusz Luterek, who has taken part in the industry and government meetings on the issue, said the law doesn’t allow for the seizure of products following the issue of a generic letter.

The Agricultural Product Standards Act requires the agency to send specific notifications to food producers in which it points out which products are in breach of the law and why. The letters need to state which act, regulations and sub-regulations have been contravened and allow for an appeal.

The agricultural standards act requires the agency to have a warrant unless it is given consent or there is a matter of urgency, such as a belief the food products could be contaminated and unsafe. The warrant has to be issued by a court in the area of jurisdiction, Luterek said.

Ongoing battle on both sides to get govt to act

The SA Meat Processors Association (SAMPA) has been asking the DALRRD since 2019 to ensure the vegan food producing industry complied with labelling requirements, says  CEO Peter Gordon. 

He says the proposed clampdown and discussions from late June have already resulted in companies fixing their product descriptions and packaging.

The meat industry does not have an issue with terms such as soya mince and veggie sausages, but with more misleading labelling like vegan biltong. Processed meats such as biltong, bratwurst and boerewors are defined in their own regulations which specify the quality and type of meat they must contain.

Gordon said: “In that two-year [pandemic] period, government was asleep. The [plant- based] industry ran amok and got bolder and bolder with labelling. They put anything they like on labels. There are products called beef-style ribs. What nonsense! It’s a vegan product. Call it a mushroom and pea flour grill stick, not a rib.”

Gordon on Wednesday met the Food Safety Agency.

Gordon believes the agency will be reasonable and will not be clamping down on lentil patties and plant-based sausages but on labelling breaches like chicken-style nuggets, vegan chorizo, veggie prawns or beef-style tikka strips, where a product is described as a meat.  

The CGCSA says part of the problem was that there were not regulations governing plant-based foods and called on the “department to expedite the regulation formulation, without applying punitive measures on the plant-based sector”.

It is important to note that 85% of the sector has agreed to establish the regulatory framework, it says. It has contacted the DALRRD to resolve the matter and assist members on a case-by-case basis.

Euromonitor International, a research agency, estimates the meat and seafood substitute industry in SA was worth R815m in 2021.

This figure excludes canned and dried beans and legumes but refers to processed vegan products that include imitation sausages, burgers, mince and steaks.  By contrast, the processed meat and seafood industry in SA is worth about 20 times that at R16.3bn.

The clampdown on labelling could be pricey for listed RCL Foods that owns part of LiveKindly Africa which distributes and markets the vegan Fry’s brand in SA and overseas. Fry’s could be forced to change local packaging and ensure it is not the same as their products, which are exported to Australia and other countries.

LiveKindly Africa may also have to change packaging of two foreign vegan food brands it imports and sells in SA.

Source: BusinessLive.co.za

This is a developing story….

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