Restaurants say ban on ‘meat’ names for veggie products is straining business

Restaurants offering vegan products say they have received little guidance from the government on labelling terms for plant-based products after the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development’s decision on August 16 — since successfully interdicted — to “seize meat analogue products” that are using names prescribed for processed meat products.

“As a plant based business owner, this decision [causes] unnecessary strain because we feel that we need to be able to compete in a fair market where we can offer ‘burgers’, ‘sausages’ and ‘nuggets’ with the correct information of the menu items. I think that it is a huge step in the wrong direction in the fight for climate change,” said the co-founder of Lexi’s Healthy Eatery, Ezio Nichele.  

He said that sourcing sustainable plant-based options was difficult in South Africa,  and there has been a decline in consumers wanting plant based options since the start of Covid-19.   

“We are faced with many challengers in the plant based industry in South Africa, mainly from sourcing products and the sustainability of the business. We have noticed that with the onset of the pandemic and the economic climate at the moment we are seeing customers shifting away from plant based healthy lifestyles. My view is that people have bigger problems in their mind than saving the cows or spending a little extra to eat healthier,” said Nichele. 

Werner Prinsloo, the owner of The Fussy Vegan, said the ban felt like a “bullying tactic” and had forced his company to look into changing the names of its food offerings.   

“There has been very little guidance from governments themselves in terms of naming recommendations, which is very confusing when it comes to actually running a business.

“We’ve actually had to go about changing and finding new ways of naming things like ‘burgers’ and ‘patties’. Small businesses are having to pay designers to redesign their packaging. They’re having to scrap all packaging. It really feels like a pull back from the animal agriculture industry,” he said. 

Donovan Will, the South African Director for ProVeg, a food awareness organisation, said the organisation was concerned that the ban would cause confusion among consumers looking to transition from meat to vegan-friendly options. 

“If a consumer has grown up eating beef and chicken and is now looking for a meat alternative that is healthier and more environmentally friendly or ethical, but they still want the texture and taste, it is going to be incredibly difficult for them to know what to look for if words like ‘beef-style’, ‘chicken-style’, ‘burger’, ‘sausage’ or ‘nugget’ are not allowed. 

“We have already seen products like Beyond Meat temporarily not being imported into the country because of the uncertainty, so there have already been economic effects, and if products are seized, there will be even bigger consequences,” he said.

Will said since the ban, vegan companies in the country were not provided with alternative food terms that they would be allowed to use, which caused uncertainty.

“There was no way companies could re-label their products in the time that was given. Some of the products available in SA are imported and that is very difficult to do if there is so much uncertainty. 

“Some of the companies are having to consider whether to put their staff on short-term contracts or shorter hours. The South African economy is already difficult to navigate for many businesses. Right now they are still dealing with the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation, rising fuel costs, load-shedding and other factors. Many of these businesses were already feeling financial pressures and this kind of legislation is completely unnecessary,” he said. 

The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa obtained an interdict from the South Gauteng high court on 19 August against the department and the Food Safety Agency, temporarily halting the seizing of meat analogue products from stores through the country until the matter goes to court. 

The council issued a statement after the order in which it said it would continue to seek to overturn the decision of the Food Safety Agency to arbitrarily seize meat analogue products by way of an appeal. 

The statement said: “It is imperative that all stakeholders work together to formulate regulations applicable to meat analogue products so as to ensure that no unauthorised action is taken against any of its members in the plant-based sector.”  

The department of agriculture, land reform and rural development accepted the order, and said in a statement issued on 23 August it would “hold off any seizure of meat analogue products” that make use of names prescribed for processed meat products until November 17, when the matter is again to be heard. 

The department said anyone “aggrieved by the decision” to seize plant based foods should appeal against it.  

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