So how much meat is there in meat products?

The processed meat industry has been complaining to the government about vegan and vegetarian meat analogue products that contain no meat. This is rank hypocrisy, argues Ivo Vegter, contrarian SA opinionista.

He writes….

In two recent columns, I’ve ranted satirical about the outrageous decision to crack down on the naming of vegan and vegetarian products that the processed meat industry says would fool customers into thinking they were buying real meat products. 

They managed to convince Billy Makhafola, the executive officer in charge of agricultural product standards at the Department of Agriculture and Stuff, that terms such as burger, sausage, nugget, patty and biltong implicitly refer to meat, and that no adjective such as vegan, vegetarian, non-meat, meat-free, non-dairy, dairy free or imitation could clear up that confusion. 

Makhafola duly issued a stern letter warning sellers of meat analogues that their supposedly misleading marketing – which has misled exactly nobody – must end, on pain of having their products confiscated. At one point, he got so mad, he threatened to ban vegan and vegetarian products altogether.

Regulatory capture

This is an excellent example of what economists call ‘regulatory capture’. Regulatory capture happens when large companies are able to influence the regulator to regulate not in the interest of consumers, but in their own interests, and especially to protect them from competition from smaller rivals. 

Even assuming no revolving doors and no corruption, regulatory capture happens because big companies and powerful industry associations are able to devote time, money and expertise to lobbying regulators, while individual consumers are not so represented, and therefore are rarely heard by the regulator.

Consumers express their views through their buying behaviour. If they did have a voice, their purchasing choices would have demonstrated that they are not at all confused, that they do want meat analogues on the shelves, that they are prepared to pay for them, and that they believe them to be healthier than real-meat alternatives. 

If consumers had a voice, they would plead for Makhafola to protect the vegan and vegetarian meat analogue market from underhanded anti-competitive behaviour by the processed meat industry.

Regulation 1283

The processed meat industry claims that vegan and vegetarian product makers deceive consumers by naming products by what is essentially their shape. Although one can make a nugget, a sausage or a patty of literally anything, including non-food materials, the meat industry somehow believes they ought to have a monopoly on those names, lest consumers be duped.

In writing about this issue, I have had the displeasure of having to read Regulation 1283, upon which the processed meat industry relies to argue their exclusive claim to certain food shape descriptions. 

It does not support that claim, as I have pointed out before. However, it is not a document they would want their customers to read. They surely would like to keep consumers under the mistaken impression that the processed meat products they sell contain, for the most part, meat. 

Sometimes they do, but very often, they do not, a meat scientist highly experienced in South African and international meat processing told me. Getting on the bad side of the meat industry when you’re a meat scientist is a poor career move, so they very reasonably asked that I keep their name out of it.


Take the first entry in Table 2, covering polony, Russians, Viennas and Frankfurters. The first deception is right there in the name. These products do not, in fact, come from Bologna (or Poland), Russia, Vienna or Frankfurt, respectively. They come from South African processed meat factories.

I call upon Makhafola to ban those product names forthwith, since they are likely to deceive consumers.

Then, let’s consider the official standard for the composition of these ‘meats’. In classic bureaucratic fashion, this requires distinguishing between total meat equivalent, total meat content, total lean meat equivalent and total lean meat. 

The minimum total meat equivalent for these sausages must be 60%. That doesn’t sound so bad, but what exactly do they mean by ‘meat equivalent’? 

Well, that breaks down to ‘lean meat equivalent plus any fat or edible oils, edible offal or combination thereof’. 

Lean meat equivalent, in turn, is a measure of protein nitrogen, which ‘may be from a plant or animal source or both’. 

The minimum percentage of actual lean meat is set at a mere 15%. 

The minimum total meat content is 25%, which includes the 15% lean meat, and 10% of fat, but fat is defined as ‘edible lipids from animal or plant origin, or a combination thereof’, so it doesn’t have to be meat at all. 

So when the standard prescribes a ‘total meat equivalent’ of 60%, only a quarter of that, or 15%, has to be actual meat. That means that 85% of your deceptively labelled sausage doesn’t have to be meat at all, but can be of plant origin. 

Moreover, the entire content of lean meat can be provided by nothing more substantial than defeathered chicken skins and dehaired pork rind. 

This means, my expert correspondent argues, that ‘there is a very small difference between meat analogues and processed meats’. 

Plant proteins

Our meat science friend says: ‘The larger portion, 85%, of a processed meat product does not have to be meat. The 15% “lean meat” that has to be derived from a slaughter animal can be derived from mechanically deboned meat or from pig skin and chicken skin. … So, processed meat products are made mainly from plant proteins.’

Similar calculations can be made for other processed meat products. ‘Reformed bacon’ or ‘reformed kassler chops’, for example, only need to contain 10% lean meat. The rest may legally be derived from plants. 

Liver spreads, patés and terrines need to contain a minimum of 10% actual liver, and another 5% lean meat. The rest can be the cheapest edible fats and fillers the manufacturer can come up with. 

Many people who buy processed meat products would not be aware that they might contain very little meat indeed. If Makhafola is going to take an industry to task for misleading marketing, perhaps the processed meat industry should be his first target. 

‘The meat industry should not create a stir about plant products that resemble meat products and use the names of shapes, i.e. disks (patties), balls or sausages’ our scientist says. ‘Focus should be on the protein content of these plant based products. If this is low, then it is deceiving, otherwise it is not’. 

Informing the public

As long as food products made exclusively from plant material are labelled as vegan or vegetarian, they are not at all deceptive, unlike processed meat products, which are made mainly from plants themselves, and contain more plant proteins than animal proteins. 

‘Is this not what the public should know?’ asks my correspondent? 

The adjectives vegan or vegetarian are necessary descriptors of a food product’s contents, but they are also sufficient, in the sense that they describe the entire contents of the product. Can the same be said about adjectives such as beef, pork or chicken, when they might describe a mere 15% of the content of a sausage?

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the processed meat industry, or the products of dubious composition they sell. Whether vegetarian or not, I entirely support people’s right to sell or buy whatever they want.

However, if the meat processing industry wants to wage an anti-competitive regulatory capture campaign against its plant-based rivals, its hypocrisy ought to be called out. 

Instead of letting himself be captured to fight against purveyors of non-meat protein substitutes, perhaps Makhafola might want to tighten up the regulations that tell consumers what exactly it is they’re buying when they buy processed meat.

Source: Daily Friend