Kombucha Brewers International has hired a regulatory consultant to help guide it through the proposed standard of identity process. The consultant is April Kates, who works with EAS Consulting Group of Alexandria, Virginia, which specializes in Food and Drug Administration regulations.
KBI said in a release that a standard of identity for the fermented tea drink has been in the works for several years, with industry stakeholders providing feedback for the past two years. The goal is to protect the category's integrity while allowing for innovations and continued evolution, the group said. Before submitting the proposal to government regulators, KBI plans to get input from its members.
KBI President Hannah Crum told Food Navigator the process has provided a lot of information about how the industry can be more technically specific. "We're really thinking through what are the defining attributes of kombucha," she said.
The kombucha industry, which has seen accelerated sales growth due to its probiotic qualities, is trying to get ahead of the curve on establishing a standard of identity. The process has proved valuable for milk, cheese, butter and other products, although the dairy industry is asking for beefed-up FDA enforcement because of increasing plant-based competition.
Other food products coming under standard of identity regulations include jams, chocolate, flour, cereals, tomato products, macaroni products, baked goods, dressings, canned fruits, juices, shellfish, canned tuna, eggs, margarine and canned vegetables.
But just as it can adopt these regulations, the FDA can also revoke them. The agency recently said it plans to begin pulling long-established standards of identity requirements for frozen cherry pie and French dressing.
For a unique and relatively new category such as kombucha, it may be prudent for KBI to move as quickly as possible to propose a standard of identity. It could help protect the product's integrity, as the group noted, especially after a recent debate and even some legal action over authenticity and how kombucha is made.
A major reason to establish standards sooner rather that later stems from industry efforts to make sure the alcohol level in kombucha is kept below a 0.5% alcohol-by-volume (ABV) level during its shelf life. According to Food Navigator, there are concerns that pasteurization changes the product too much by destroying beneficial bacteria.
In addition to the quality argument, kombucha makers have a financial reason to keep the alcohol level down because they have to pay taxes on the product if trace amounts are above 0.5% ABV. A bill introduced in March by three members of Congress from Oregon would remove alcohol taxes on kombucha and hike the allowable amount of alcohol to 1.25% ABV. The legislation has yet to be scheduled for a vote.
Even if KBI gets all its regulatory ducks in a row, there's no guarantee the FDA will agree to establish a standard of identity for kombucha. Sabra petitioned the FDA in 2014 to establish one for hummus, but the effort was not successful. In addition, if kombucha is granted a standard of identity it's not clear how enforceable the standards are or how easy they might be to change. Most likely, the industry would need to maintain some type of manufacturing oversight to make sure the standards are maintained.
On the plus side, consumers could feel assured of a higher level of quality and safety if kombucha gets over that regulatory hurdle. Products in compliance might need to carry some type of stamp or seal noting their status, but they might also fetch a premium price from consumers seeking them out for the additional guarantee. This could influence other kombucha makers to join the parade and boost their competitive advantage at the same time.