- The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) released a set of voluntary labeling standards for plant-based meat alternatives with the goal of promoting consistency across the category.
- The trade group specified that manufacturers can describe meat alternatives using terms referring to the conventional meat they intend to mimic as well as the shape or form they take like burger or nugget, but products should include a prominent reference to a qualifier that describes the product, such as plant-based or vegetarian.
- The voluntary standards were issued in part to try to address the recent policy battles over labeling for plant-based meats, such as the Real MEAT Act, which was proposed in October.
By releasing its voluntary standards, the PBFA looks to fend off traditional meat companies who have recently tried to defend their market share by attempting to stake legal claim to terms often associated with animal products like "burger" and "meat."
The middle-of-the-road approach, a version of which Mississippi adopted in November after a legal battle, allows manufacturers to continue to label their products with familiar terminology that consumers will recognize but also qualify those labels with plant-based terms to avoid potential confusion. In the Mississippi case, the state initially proposed rules to block the use of meat terms for plant-based products, but the PBFA and Upton's Naturals sued. Both groups dropped their federal lawsuit against Mississippi on Nov. 7 — the same day the state's revised labeling regulations went into effect.
The legislative fight in Mississippi is just one of many making its way through most states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there were 45 different bills on meat labeling proposed in 26 states as of August. Of those bills, 17 have been enacted in 14 states.
The question gained national attention at the end of October with the introduction of the Real MEAT Act requiring any products made to simulate beef but does not come entirely from a cow to be labeled "imitation" was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since Nov. 14, that legislation has been sitting in the Subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture awaiting further decision.
The voluntary standards issued by PBFA is a compromise that many plant-based food makers are likely to support. Numerous products already take this approach. Beyond Burger prominently prints “Plant-Based Patties” on the front of its packages and Upton's Naturals uses qualifiers such as “vegan” on its jerky packaging.
Voluntary standards are not always successful, but they can underscore a trend that is already forming. Last year, the PBFA proposed voluntary labeling for plant-based milks to try to create standardization across the industry. Although these standards requested a labeling change, many major plant-based milks already adhered to these standards using terms like plant-based or putting the nut in front of the word “milk” to form a compound word.
Settling this debate will take the FDA officially determining the standards of identity for plant-based meat. However, doing so could be risky in the long run. The FDA is currently working to remove some standards of identity that have been in place since the 1938 passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Although the law initially was a boon to manufacturers, companies today say that the archaic restrictions stifle innovation.