Regulatory Update on Plant-Based Food Alternatives

Regulatory Update on Plant-Based Food Alternatives

March 11, 2020
Shari Steinbach

By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor

With plant-based food alternatives gaining market share, there is also increased scrutiny regarding how these products are identified and promoted. Conventional agricultural groups such as beef and dairy, for example, have been very focused on how plant-based alternatives to their products are being labeled and in 2019 there was significant state legislative activity and law suits on labeling. While the regulatory issues surrounding plant-based products remains largely unsettled here are some current and future considerations:

  • The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the production and labeling of plant-based foods and all labeling must be truthful and not misleading. State laws echo this requirement and an increasing number of states have been passing laws providing that only foods derived from food-producing animals may bear labels like “meat,” “sausage,” “jerky,” “burger,” or other “meaty” terms.
  • In 2018, Missouri became the first state to pass a law that prohibits the use of the term meat for products that “are not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” A number of other states have followed suit with similar legislation.  Some states have clarified that they will not consider products to be mislabeled if the label clearly indicates that the product is plant-based. For examples, a clear statement on the front of package, before or after the product name, that states it is “plant-based,” “veggie,” “lab-grown,” or a declaration indicating the product is “make from plants.”
  • In response to the surge of new and innovative foods, the FDA is currently in a multiyear Food Innovation Strategy process to modernize food standards of identity. A standard of identity essentially sets out what ingredients a product must contain, which ingredients it may contain, and any manufacturing specifications. 
  • For dairy substitutes, the FDA typically has applied flexibility when it comes to enforcement against a plant-based product for using a term like “milk” on the label if the label clearly conveys the product is plant-based. This may be how meat alternatives will be handled in the future.
  • Moving forward, it will be important to assess the laws together with consumer perception and understanding.  Outcomes must be linked to the FDA’s changes to food standards of identity and the agency’s update to food labeling management overall. It is suggested that with the agency’s continued encouragement of food tech innovation, there will be a flexible system for regulating the labeling of plant-based foods, however, conflicting stakeholder interests will most likely continue to spark state legislative activity and litigation.

In the meantime, as shoppers look to plant-based foods for personalized dietary needs, retail dietitians can help individuals compare product attributes and stress the importance of label reading.