AUSTRALIA’S red meat sector should not over-react to animal activism or veganism, but nor should it underestimate the advent of alternative proteins or the importance of sustainability, the first Herefords Australia Beef Forum was told at Hamilton yesterday.
Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Jason Strong told 150 delegates at the south-west Victorian forum that the bigger changes in consumer preferences were in the amount of information about food that is available and wanted, and the expectations on how it was produced.
Recent animal activism activity on the anniversary of the Dominion film in April was an example of this, he said.
“That’s not new, the activity is new, but their message isn’t new.
“The fact that there are vegans isn’t new, the fact that they have those views isn’t new.”
He said the number of vegans in Australia has only risen by about one percent in the last 10 years to about 7-8pc.
“We just got a very in-your-face vision of them on that day.”
He said the red meat industry had to be careful that it responded to activism in an appropriate way.
This is one of the challenges for MLA because the body is visible and producers wanted it to confront the activists, Mr Strong said.
“There is a bunch of producers that desperately wanted us to stand up there and confront them in Flinders Street.”
But if the body had done that it would have given the activists’ action “more oxygen”, he said.
“We would have been just one more person standing in between the local businessman and his latte and he would be getting more upset not just at them but also at us as well.”
Mr Strong said the perception of the activist action has largely been negative, but it had increased consumer awareness of where food comes from and how it is produced.
“But the perception of the consumers and the community about where the food comes from and how we operate is very positive.”
He said over 90 percent of Australia households are still regular beef eaters and over 70pc of households are still regular sheep meat eaters.
“The sentiment is very positive.
“What we haven’t done, we haven’t done a good job in telling you guys about that.”
He said MLA was working on improving its communication to its levy payers about the work being done with consumers and the community.
But Mr Strong said the descriptions, food safety and quality of products were becoming more important, including use of the word “natural”.
He said the industry had to be careful it didn’t over-respond to these things, but said the beef industry had an opportunity with the increase in alternative proteins in being able to state beef’s only content is “beef”, rather than a long list of chemical ingredients.
“If you look at the ingredients in an Impossible (plant-based) burger, if the consumer is prepared to accept all of those ingredients and if they are listed out, they sound a lot like chemicals and additives and salt, which they are.
“If the consumers is prepared to accept those and think that’s a natural more sustainable product, then haven’t we got a fantastic story?
“Beef, what else? Nothing that’s it and its natural.”
Mr Strong said it was easy to get worried about the massive interest in alternative proteins, but it doesn’t have to be a significant negative for the red meat sector.
“It’s already a thing, there are already commercial products, it is not going to go away.
“It’s not going to be as confronting I think as we can make it sound right now, but I think there is also an opportunity,” he said.
“Because we have this massive protein demand and it is going to continue growing, there is an opportunity for making sure we have enough protein to feed the world.
“So it doesn’t have to be a significant negative against us, but we can’t be naïve.”
He said a lot of the alternative protein projects are targeting solving poverty and malnutrition and many of the investors are not anti-meat, “but they are actually pro solving world problems.”
“The thing is that if they develop plant-based proteins and they can solve poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and we become collateral damage to that, I think they will be sad about that, but it won’t stop them.
”They are not doing it against us, they are doing to solve a bigger issue, but we’ve got to make sure we are not collateral damage in that process.”
Mr Strong showed the forum the United Nation’s Sustainable Development goals, which include sustainably managing forests, halting land degradation and biodiversity loss, good health and well-being, clean water, and sustainable cities and communities. The UN SD goals were being used across the community and included actions the red meat sector could be held to account for, but should be in front of so they are not imposed and become onerous, he said.
“There is not an argument to be had about whether consumers or the community are interested in things like welfare or sustainability; we can’t be having arguments about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing – that ship’s sailed.
“We still have the opportunity to control how it is that we actually manage and report these things, but if we don’t then they will be imposed on us in some way,” he said.
“It might not be tomorrow, it might not be next week, but it will be eventually.
“We have the opportunity to build and enhance our relationship with the community so we can give them comfort about the things were are doing.”