Janet E. Collins is head of regulatory, government and industry affairs at Motif FoodWorks
People increasingly are concerned about how animal-derived products impact their health, the environment or animal welfare. As a result, more than half of Americans are choosing to eat plant-based alternatives at least some of the time. This trend is expected only to increase out of both preference and necessity. By 2050, global protein demand is expected to increase 80% over today’s levels, and traditional advancements will not support such demand. To this end, we can expect the food we eat will change in the way it’s made, or in the ingredients used.
To meet consumers’ growing appetite for animal-free options, new startups and legacy food makers alike are working hard to close the gap on things like taste, texture, how it cooks and nutrition. They know it’s imperative to offer consumers great food experiences, but creating plant-based versions of dairy, eggs and meat is no easy task. There is incredible complexity to making plant-based products that mimic or match their animal counterparts, and there is no doubt that to achieve new breakthroughs and improve the options at scale, the industry will require significant technological and scientific innovation.
The Food and Drug Administration must strongly consider this ongoing innovation and food science as it moves to modernize current food standards of identity, an effort kicked off during a public meeting held in September. FDA’s standards of identity have not traditionally kept pace with consumers’ own evolving expectations about the food supply and products they are purchasing. In this crucial moment where FDA aims to promote innovation of healthier foods, it’s essential that the agency consider these necessary technologies and changing consumer mindsets as it sets important guidance and regulations about plant-based alternatives — including what we call them.
The meeting and coincidental call for comments come at a time when regulators find themselves under mounting pressure to make decisions about the naming and labeling of food in this new category. Currently, at least 23 states in the U.S. have introduced legislative language to prohibit manufacturers from using words like “milk” or “meat” to describe plant-based alternatives and to meaningfully describe what is inside a food package.
Labeling is an essential part of FDA’s regulation of standards of identity. In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act intended to prohibit food manufacturers from adulterating or mislabeling their products. Misleading labels are prohibited by U.S. law, and for good reason. Nevertheless, the recent trend is intended to deny food manufacturers the opportunity to use terms associated with FDA- or USDA-regulated products for which standards of identity already exist.
It’s important to remember that the intent of standards of identity is to prohibit economic adulteration and mislabeling of food by providing consumers with “assurance that they will get what they may reasonably expect to receive.” Removing words from labels doesn’t make it easier for consumers to make informed choices. As the number of options and alternatives grow, it limits choice.
Qualified terms that specify meaningful differences among foods provide consumers product information needed to make purchase decisions in an environment that includes many choices. In practice, this method — which is supported by the Good Food Institute — looks like adding a qualifier such as “veggie” in front of the term “burger” or “oat” in front of the term “milk” on a package. Such qualifiers alert consumers as to what is in the package, not confuse them.
Some states are beginning to rethink the laws that ban plant-based foods from using meat-based terms. This month Mississippi proposed revision of existing regulation that currently prohibits such labeling.
Labeling in this manner is a logical extension of standards of identity representing animal-based products for which alternative products are marketed. Further, this labeling approach supports FDA’s goal of modernizing standards of identity and spurring innovation at food companies. A recent Food Marketing Institute report included a study reporting that for consumers, transparency may become a key non-price purchase trigger. Nine in 10 consumers rate ingredient transparency as important or very important for companies to address. With the food label as consumers’ first and principal source of information about their food, it's one we need to get right.
That FDA is making efforts to modernize the regulation of foods for which standards of identity exist deserves applause and attention. With updated standards of identity that expand the information brands can offer consumers about what is inside a package — not limit it — consumers can make better informed decisions when scanning the increasingly crowded aisle of plant-based options.