South Africa: The fate of plant-based meat alternatives

Published Date: August 14, 2023

For those who may not be aware, in the last year, the plant-based food industry has come under fire in South Africa over using descriptive terms such as “burger”, “nugget” and “sausage” in relation to meat analogue products.  In South Africa, meat analogue products are foodstuffs that approximate the aesthetic qualities, which include the primary texture, flavour and appearance of a type of meat and/or chemical characteristics of a type of meat.  Consequently, the manner in which vegetarian and vegan products are described and labelled in South Africa has become a controversial topic, with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the meat industry claiming that the use of terms, such as “hamburger” and “nugget”, in relation to plant-based foodstuffs is misleading to consumers.

Following discussions between the meat industry, the plant-based food industry and the Department, the Department, on 22 June 2022, gave the plant-based food industry notice and directed, in effect, that such products should not be described using words such as “hamburger” and “nugget”.  The reason given in the notice was that meat analogues do not meet the definition of “processed meat” as defined in the Regulations Regarding the Classification, Packing and Marking of Processed Meat Products intended for sale in the Republic of South Africa (“the 2019 Meat Regulations”).  Next, on 16 August 2022, the Food Safety Agency, the Department’s designated assignee, issued a letter indicating that it would, with effect from 22 August, seize any meat analogue products presented for sale in South Africa, where such products are labelled using product names prescribed or reserved for processed meat.

In addition, the Department, on 26 August 2022, caused the publication of the Regulations regarding the Classification, Packing and Marking of Certain Raw Meat Products intended for sale in the Republic of South Africa (“the 2022 Meat Regulations”).  The 2022 Meat Regulations are published under the Agricultural Products Standard Act and establish compositional standards for products such as raw burgers and raw bangers (sausages).  In terms of the compositional standards set out in the 2022 Meat Regulations, it is expressly stated that such goods shall be made only with meat.  As a consequence of the 2022 Meat Regulations, it is, arguably, an offence not only to name a product a “veggie burger” or a “plant-based beef-styled patty”  but also a bun, a “hamburger roll”.

In response to these events, the Consumer Goods Counsel of South Africa (“the CGCSA”) approached the High Court in Johannesburg for urgent relief to stop the seizure of plant-based foodstuffs.  On 19 August 2022, interim relief was granted, and the parties were ordered to return to court on 17 November 2022 in order to determine whether or not the relief should be made final.  Following on from this, the CGCSA has also now instituted proceedings seeking to the review the Department’s administrative actions and that application is currently pending before court.

Shortly before 17 November 2022, the Read Meat Industry Forum sought leave to intervene, which leave was granted and following the exchange of papers, the parties were back in court on 12 May 2023.  On 25 July 2023, Dippenaar, J confirmed, albeit with some amendments, the interim relief granted on 19 August 2023, pending the outcome of the CGCSA’s review application that is pending.

For the moment then, veggie burgers, described as such on the label, are safe from seizure, however, it is unclear, at this stage, what the prognosis for such labels will be in the future.  For consumers and manufacturers alike, it remains a wait and see game.

Source:  Consumer Goods Council of South Africa v Food Safety Agency & Others (015445-2022) [2023] ZAGPJHC 728 (25 July 2023)

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