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Sylvain CharleboisThe overpowering plant-based narrative is clearly helping lentils, chickpeas and soya win the proteins wars. The livestock and dairy industries feel the pressure.

With the publication of the new Canada’s Food Guide, we have officially ended more than 70 years of state-endorsed fascination for animal proteins.

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 more popular than ever. In fact, reports suggest parts of the country are 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 soya-based products this year will exceed $140 million nationwide, an increase of more than 20 per cent, according to some estimates. Two Canadian tofu manufacturers plan to double their production within the next six months.

So plant-based conversions are well underway.

With vegetable proteins becoming more popular, many in the livestock and dairy sectors are uncomfortable. The rise of vegan butchers, fake meats, vegan cheese and other such loosely-used terms accentuates their concern. Similar to cultural appropriation, borrowing meat and dairy terminology is being labelled food category appropriation.

But livestock and dairy stakeholders are challenging how meat substitutes are marketed. More than five months after Missouri became the first American state to regulate the term ‘meat’ on product labels, Nebraska is pushing for similar protection against veggie burgers, tofu dogs and other items that consumers may see as equal protein alternatives. Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming are contemplating doing the same.

Things are shifting in Europe as well. France has adopted a law similar to Missouri’s, claiming to protect consumers by doing away with misleading labels.

Establishing clear, official definitions for meat, a butcher or a dairy product has become a critical issue for animal-protein folks. They have little choice but to defend their market.

In Canada, the number of dairy-product complaints increased to 415 in 2018 from 294 in 2014, up 41 per cent.

Strong regulations are already in place in Canada. Starting Jan. 15, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) can revoke licences, recall products and issue fines of up to $250,000. Yet interpretations can vary.

Quebec, which often follows France’s lead on anything related to protecting a designation of origin, could be the first to act. It wouldn’t 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.

For one thing, many major players in agri-food, originally devoted solely to meat processing, are hedging their bets. Maple Leaf Foods, for example, is trying to diversify its protein portfolio. The Toronto-based giant has invested in plant-based and even insect proteins the past few years.

It’s a signal that major companies are moving on from the protection of meat at any cost.

And the non-meat market is attracting people who like meat, not just vegetarians and vegans. Because of the curiosity of these consumers, the market for such products is much broader.

Plus, the lactose-intolerant crowd is getting larger, having an impact on the diary industry. To appease the dairy sector, vegan producers use designations like “cheeze,” subtly altering product names.

It wouldn’t be surprising if provinces pressure Ottawa to commit to a regulatory process soon.

Because veganism has become socially normalized, vegan product marketing is starting to use mainstream strategies.

U.K. vegan cheese brand Violife has launched its first television campaign for its dairy-free product. It’s one of the first vegan ads to appear on mainstream TV.

Major restaurant chains like Papa John’s and Domino’s offer vegan cheese as an option to customers.

Berkeley, Calif., has established meat-free Mondays, requiring vegan-only food to be served at official events once a week.

So the meatless trend is spreading. Almost daily, news reports point to companies or governments trying to deal with the massive rise in consumption of alternative proteins. The pressure on the dairy and livestock industries is real and won’t disappear.

Now they just have to figure out how to prove the case for food appropriation.

Sylvain Charlebois is scientific director of the Canadian Agrifood Foresight Institute, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.


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