Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy, senior director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University.
With the publication of the new food guide, Canada has officially ended its government-endorsed fascination with animal proteins, which lasted more than 70 years. Let’s face it, the change was necessary. The guide is now more urban and has democratized the notion of protein consumption. Vegetable proteins are seemingly more popular than ever.
The overpowering plant-based narrative is clearly helping lentils, chickpeas and soy win the protein wars.
In fact, reports suggest parts of the country are currently experiencing tofu shortages. With New Year’s resolutions, it’s not uncommon to see an increase in tofu sales early in the year, but retail sales for soy-based products this year will likely exceed $140-million nationwide, an increase of more than 20 per cent, according to some estimates. Two Canadian tofu manufacturers are planning to double their production within the next six months, so plant-based protein demand is real.
With vegetable proteins becoming more popular, many in the livestock and dairy sectors are feeling uncomfortable due to the rise of terms such as vegan butchers, fake meats and vegan cheese, used loosely in the food industry. Similar to the concept of cultural appropriation, this borrowing of meat and dairy terminology is being labelled food category appropriation.
But stakeholders in the livestock and dairy sectors are not staying idle; they’re fighting back. More than five months after Missouri became the first American state to regulate the term meat on product labels, Nebraska is poised to be next, pushing for similar protection from veggie burgers, tofu dogs and other items that consumers may see as equal protein alternatives. Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming are also contemplating doing the same thing
France has adopted a law similar to Missouri’s, which claims to protect consumers by doing away with misleading labels. Establishing clear, official definitions for meat, or a butcher, or a dairy product has become a critical issue for the animal-protein camp. And they have little choice but to strike back and defend their market territory.
Chances are good that similar regulations will come to Canada. Some regulations do exist here, but clever marketers are manoeuvring through ambiguous rules on labelling. Quebec, which often follows France’s lead on anything related to protected designation of origin, could be the first to act. It would not be surprising to see both the meat and dairy industries accusing the vegan movement of food appropriation of a sort. Other provinces could follow suit, including dairy-friendly Ontario and Western Canada where the beef sector is influential.
But it won’t be easy to protect product names or designations.
First, many major players in agri-food, originally devoted solely to meat processing, have already hedged against animal proteins. Maple Leaf Foods is a prime example of a company trying to diversify its protein portfolio. The Toronto-based giant has now invested in plant-based and even insect proteins over the past few years.
Second, the nonmeat market is attracting people who like meat, not just vegetarians and vegans. The recent introduction of the Beyond Meat burger to Canadian grocers and the A&W fast food chain is evidence of this: It is not preaching to the converted, but asking regular customers to give plant protein a try. Out of pure curiosity on the part of some consumers, the market for these products is much broader now.
To appease the dairy sector, vegan product makers are using designations such as cheeze, subtly altering the name of the product. Labelling laws in Canada are ambiguous at best, which is the perfect setting for a lengthy debate on the issue. It wouldn’t be surprising if provinces were to pressure Ottawa to commit to a regulatory process soon.
Because veganism has now become socially normalized, marketing strategies for vegan products are starting to use mainstream practices. Vegan cheese brand Violife in the U.K. has just launched its first television campaign for its dairy-free cheese. It’s one of the first vegan ads to appear on mainstream television. Major restaurant chains like Papa John’s are now openly offering vegan cheese as an option to customers. Canadian pizza chain Panago offers vegan selections – and a “vegan curious” special, with meat-free pepperoni and dairy-free cheese on their pies. On the West Coast, Berkeley, Calif., has become the first jurisdiction in the United States to establish meat-free Mondays, requiring vegan-only food be served at official city events once a week.
So the meatless trend is everywhere and almost daily, news reports point to cases of companies or governments trying to adjust to the massive rise in consumption of alternative proteins. The pressure is real and will not be going away any time soon – and a case for actual food appropriation remains to be proven.