Consumers nowadays tend to include more and more plant-based products into their diet. For instance, a study ordered by DuPont Nutrition established double digits of growth for non-dairy ice-cream, dairy and cheese during the year preceding June 2018. More recently, NPR published an overview demonstrating which products were most consumed during the corona crisis. Amongst these, plant-based meat alternatives and oat milk were the biggest hits, demonstrating over 200 and 300 % growth respectively. Plant-based alternatives for dairy and meat will be discussed during the Protein Summit of the Vitafoods Conference in Geneva. As you may know, this conference was shifted from May to early September. In anticipation thereof, a webinar on Protein and Protein Alternatives took place on 12 May. During this webinar, I covered the labeling and advertising of these products. This blogpost offers a recap of my contribution thereto, targeting those who are interested in this topic but could not assist.
Regulatory requirements for market access
Obviously, there are other relevant aspects for alternative protein-based products than labeling and advertising, such as the regulatory requirements for market access. For some products, like those based on certain algae or on isolates from mung beans, most likely an authorization under the Novel Food Regulation will be required. This implies that the applicant will have to put together a product dossier demonstrating the safety of the product and submit this to the European Commission. This certainly applies for cultured meat products, unless they incorporate GMO steps in their production process and / or end product. In such case, market authorization will have to be obtained on the basis of the GMO Directive and the GMO Regulation. These topics will be dealt with during the Conference in September, detailing the scientific, economic and practical implications thereof.
Relevant general labelling rules
A number of labeling rules are of relevance for any food product, including those based on alternative protein. In fact, the cornerstone of labeling law, embodied in the Regulation on Food Information to Consumers, is the prevention of misleading. This can be done in various ways, but it is of the essence that at all times any confusion about the characteristics of a product is avoided. During the webinar, I brought up the example of Mylk to clarify this. Obviously, this is not a conventional dairy product, but a plant-based product. Do you think any confusion about the nature and / or the composition of this product could arise?
This should be decided based on the so-called Teekanne decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). According to this decision, it is prohibited to give the impression (by means of an image or a description) that a particular ingredient is present in a product, whereas this is not the case and the consumer can only find out when reading the list of ingredients. When this test is applied to the product Mylk, I am of the opinion it shall pass. Firstly, consumers will most likely not expect conventional milk, because of the twist in the product name. Secondly, FOP it states “dairy-free”. Thirdly, most plant-based dairy products are not stored in the fridge in the supermarket. Lastly, from the list of ingredients it is apparent this product is based on coconut cream.
Sector specific dairy legislation
For the dairy sector, important guidance was provided by the Tofutown decision by the ECJ. As detailed in an earlier blog post, we learnt from this decision that – in short – it is prohibited to use dairy names, such as “Tofubutter”, “Pflanzenkäse” and “Veggiecheese” for non-dairy products. This can be explained by the fact the dairy market is highly regulated, meaning that any specific dairy product has its own product standard. This standard should be met when manufacturing and marketing the product at stake. During the webinar, I mentioned the product standard for milk, defined as “normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings without any addition thereto or extraction therefrom”. From this definition it follows why the use of the work milk in combination with a plant-based ingredient is, in principle, no longer allowed.
However, there are always exceptions to the rules, also in this case. These exceptions relate to so-called traditional use, like “coconut milk” (UK) and “lait d’amande” (France). Those exceptions are mentioned on a list drawn up by the European Commission. Furthermore, the word “milk” and designations used for milk products (e.g. cream, butter, yoghurt) can be used in association with one or more words designating certain composite products (famous example: “chocolate milk”). A condition precedent however is that milk is an essential part thereof, either in terms of quantity or for characterization of the product, and no constituent takes the place of milk.
Plant-based meat replacements
For these types of products, using (or not) the word “meat” is not so much an issue, because they are no conventional meat product. This issue is rather whether it is legally permitted to use certain meat product designations, such as “hamburger”, “sausage” and the like. In the US, we have seen so-called censorship bills in a great number of States. These are usually driven by the meat sector lobby, who fear unfair competition from their plant-based peers. There is fierce opposition against such censorship, amongst others from the Good Food Institute. Mid April, the GFI reported their lobby had been successful in Virginia, where the Governor vetoed label censorship.
In the EU, we have seen similar initiatives when the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament proposed a bill restricting the use of meat product names for meat alternatives. The status of this bill is yet undecided, as the current European Parliament that was inaugurated in 2019, did not yet vote on it. Fierce lobbying pro and con is however going on. We must therefore anticipate that if this bill turns into law, it will also result into restrictions of very popular terms. The alternatives for those popular terms are not so obvious yet: “lentil slices?” or “carrot tubes?”.
Please bear in mind that restrictions can also stem from national Member State laws based on reserved product designations. In the NL for instance, the name “minced meat” and “tartar” are such reserved product designations that can only be used for products meeting exactly the relevant legal specifications.
When discussing the advantages of new over conventional protein products, certain advertising standards should be taken into account. In the EU, one of the ways to avoid misleading regarding your alternative protein product is to not emphasize certain characteristics that your product does not have. In this context, I discussed in the webinar a commercial that was made for BECEL margarine (FLORA in UK) that was shown both in the Netherlands and in Belgium. The text stated “Plants are the new cows. They are outside in the field whole year long. They provide seeds, that are a source of omega-3, which is good for your heart. BECEL is 100 % plant-based and good for your heart.”
According to a complaint filed with the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (similar to Advertising Standards Authority in UK), the comparison made between plants and cows was misleading. Rationale: it was suggested that plants had a more positive effect on the environment than dairy products made from milk. The complaint was dismissed. The ACC considered that the commercial did not at all compare the advantages of plant-based products to the disadvantages of conventional dairy. In fact, it only stressed the positive health effects of BECEL, due to its plant-based ingredients. The commercial appeared an effective (and funny!) way of advertising alternative dairy products.
Alternative protein products are food products like any other, so make sure that when marketing these, you are up to speed with all applicable general labeling requirements. Furthermore, take into account any sector specific standards, like the ones that apply for dairy products. Also, please note that at Member State level, further restrictions on the use of particular product names may apply. Finally, when advertising these products, make sure to avoid any misleading and know the rules for comparative advertising. This will be of particular relevance, especially once further labeling standards will evolve at EU level as initiated by the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament. Stay tuned – we will.
Copyright image: Nanne Meulendijks – please contact the artist for any further use.