Label Labyrinth

EU laws for plant-based foods are more complex than you think

This is the third and final part of our regulatory series (for now). Don’t forget to check out the last two articles in case you missed them:

Sometimes it feels like you can’t take a step in a grocery store without tripping over something plant-based. While this claim started out to mean alternatives to animal-based products, “plant-based” has become pretty ubiquitous across food and drink. Nutritional and environmental needs have made it important for the world to rethink the way we produce and consume food. And this has resulted in the creation of whole new categories of food to address these varied needs. Technologies, old and new, have also allowed the industry to create new foods and ingredients that are meant to help wean us away from animal-based products. This includes cell-based alternative products that have attempted to use animal-free or even vegan claims.

Despite some recent hiccups for plant-based meat alternatives, the numbers back up the power of this trend. 

  • The global plant-based food market is projected to more than triple over the next 10 years, growing from US$11.3 billion in 2023 to US$35.9 billion in 2033. Sales are expected to rise at a CAGR of 12.2% during this time, according to Future Market Insights

  • In contrast, the global processed meat packaging market size is projected to increase at a CAGR of 4.8% between 2022 and 2032.

But with great power comes great regulatory hurdles…

And to untangle some of these regulatory complexities for such new food categories, we spoke with GourmetPro expert Mathilde Do Chi, CEO and Principal Consultant of Vegan Food Law. She takes us through what companies in Europe or companies that want to enter Europe need to keep in mind when launching alternatives to animal-based foods, especially from a labeling perspective.

Labeling becomes a bone of contention for the EU

The European Union has the most stringent regulatory landscape when it comes to food and drink products as well as ingredients. The EU’s regulations are not just about safety but also about protecting and preserving local food traditions. This means that companies offering alternatives to animal-based products need to be mindful of using certain terms when labeling their products. In fact, labeling of plant proteins has become a major point of contention for European countries, especially since dairy and meat are major industries and take pride of place in their food culture. 

Dairy terms are protected

Dairy-related terms are protected in the EU and are defined as products coming specifically from mammals. This means that plant-based dairy alternatives cannot use words that are linked to dairy products at all, like plant-based milk, cheese, or butter. Note that the labeling debate is not only relevant for plant-based products that are currently being sold in the region but also for future approved cell-based and precision-fermentation products.  

Industry wants meat terms safeguarded

Meat and meat-related terms do not have the same level of protection as dairy in the EU, but meat producers are pushing for protection, as are certain countries. Italy and France have significantly restricted the use of traditional meat terms to describe plant-based alternatives (like ham, steak, salami, and so on). Italy has completely banned the sale and production of cultivated meat while France already banned its sale in 2021. Other countries may also follow suit to protect their own local meat and dairy industries.

As plant-based alternatives and consumer interest in plant-based lifestyles become increasingly prevalent, new regulations for food safety parameters and labeling have become vital. But the law has not kept up with innovations in this space yet.

Major regulatory hurdles for plant-based companies 

There are several regulatory challenges that companies operating in the alternative proteins space need to be aware of when operating in Europe. 

Finding the correct category fit

One of the biggest challenges for companies entering the plant-based alternatives space is just figuring out which category their products fit into. 

  • A lot of companies assume that just because their product is similar to an existing category, generic regulations that exist for the existing category will be relevant to their alternative product. This is not the case. Tailormade guidelines and regulations are needed to address the specificities of these products to ensure food safety. 

  • Unlike dairy (or meat), these alternatives are not standardized products and thus cannot have standardized dairy regulations applied to them. It may not even be enough to apply safety procedures like pasteurization to plant-based milks, while acceptable limits for contaminants like heavy metals and pests are likely to be different for the base ingredients versus dairy. 

  • Regulations for the dairy industry have been put in place based on centuries of consumption, research, and innovation. The dairy and meat industries also have the support of trade associations that have worked to build a level playing field for companies in this space, which makes the launch of new products easier. 

  • In comparison, plant-based alternatives are in their infancy, so it stands to reason that regulation is minimal. So, for different categories within the plant-based industry, entire systems need to be built from the ground up. 

Innovation does not come easy

Given this regulatory gray area for plant-based food and drink, innovating and bringing a new product to the market can be a complex process. 

  • Long prep and approval time: Getting approval for a novel food can take anywhere between 1.5 and 3 years from the moment a dossier is submitted. But this doesn’t take into account the preparation time, which includes safety testing. So overall, the time to market for new products can take years.

  • Expensive process: The entire process can also be very expensive, especially for smaller companies, making it nearly impossible to launch a new product in the EU.

Safety is not a given

Establishing safety is also time-consuming and expensive. In addition, regulatory authorities are risk-averse and tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to food safety. So, companies need to recognize that a safe base ingredient doesn’t mean a derivative product is safe. Just because an ingredient like mung bean flour has been used for a long time, it doesn’t automatically make a derivative product, like mung bean protein isolate, safe to use.

In some cases, proving historical precedence of use can make it easier to get approval for launch. But innovation in this space currently involves the creation of new products and ingredients, like protein isolates, which have not been around for more than a few years. Such ingredients require separate studies to establish safety before they can be incorporated into new types of products and need to be registered as novel ingredients first. New food additives used for product stability and mouthfeel also need to get pre-market regulatory approval to be deemed safe before they can be used. 

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Bypassing labeling requirements

As we saw earlier, on-pack labeling for plant-based foods is a barrier. Sometimes, large companies find it easier and more cost-effective to bypass the application process for novel products by just paying the fines. In fact, they even factor this into their regulatory strategies and legal budgets instead of investing in systems that would help with labeling conventions. 

Not every company can afford to do this and it could even stifle competition in the space. This is also why many European companies set up in other parts of the world that are more open to plant-based protein alternatives. A few small companies may go ahead and launch products without the appropriate approvals, but it’s only a matter of time before they get into trouble. So it’s important for companies to invest in better understanding the do’s and don’ts of labeling for the EU. 

Inconsistent enforcement of regulations

Although it was inscribed in the Food Information Consumers Regulation 1169/2011 in 2011, the European Commission still hasn’t provided a legal definition of what vegan and vegetarian mean. 

  • While all EU Members are required to follow EU legislation, many do take a more lenient stance and allow the sale of products and only insist that the base of the protein source is made clear (like soy or pea). 

  • Some countries like Germany have their own vegan and vegetarian food labeling guidelines

  • Other countries may reject certain products but do not provide alternate labeling solutions other than not using meaty terms, leaving companies without concrete solutions to prevent any litigation risks.  

This inconsistent enforcement of regulations and the existence of loopholes make it difficult for companies to launch products across multiple countries serenely, curbing expansion and competition. 

Key market entry advice

In the absence of updated and consistent regulations for plant-based foods, there are a few things that companies can do.

  • Naming Conventions: Spend significant time on developing compliant naming conventions.

  • Historical Precedent: Look for historical consumption patterns or precedents to aid approval.

  • Legal Clarity: Companies need a clear understanding of existing regulations and approval requirements.

  • Get Mathilde’s support in wading through these legal and labeling quagmires!

About Mathilde

Mathilde is highly experienced in food law and regulatory assessment, specializing in alternative proteins, plant-based, and vegan products. Mathilde’s focus has been on ensuring compliance and advocating for the vegan food industry. She has worked for both the private and public sectors, namely for law firms, an intellectual property firm, a food supplement consultancy, the French and Japanese governments, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, and ADM.

As the CEO and Principal Consultant of Vegan Food Law, Mathilde provides comprehensive food law and regulatory assessment services for both existing and newly developed alternative.

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