Lack of clarity: Plant-based regulations failing to keep pace with industry progress
In Europe, research has shown that plant-based meats sales increased 451% between 2013 and 2017, whereas the plant-based dairy alternatives market is expected to grow a further 14.5% over the next five years.
The United States topped the list for vegan food labelling worldwide at US$1.75bn, but Europe took both the second (Germany, US$614mn) and third (Britain, US$507mn) spots.
Meanwhile, a Euromonitor study revealed that the Australian vegan market is the third-fastest growing in the world, currently valued at some US$136mn and set to reach US$215mn by 2020, which would mean a growth of 58.1%.
In spite of the rapid growth and popularity plant-based products have generated in both of these regions, progress has been slow on the regulatory front, leaving related terminology and labels open to interpretation and causing confusion.
According to Verena Wiederkehr, food awareness organisation and plant-based food consumption advocate ProVeg International’s International Head of Food Industry & Retail, even traditional terms describing non-consumption of meat such as ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ do not have legal definitions in Europe.
“This creates problems when producers or retailers print their own labels on products as people do not know which criteria underlie these labels,” Wiederkehr told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“Some countries, such as Germany and Poland, have national guidelines or laws for vegan and vegetarian labelling, but a European solution is needed for market harmonisation.”
Within Europe, the plant-based dairy industry in particular faces an additional obstacle: The Common Market Organisation 1308/2013 regulation, which prohibits the use of dairy terms for products not obtained from animal secretion.
“The exact extent of this so-called ‘dairy ban’ is not clear either, as there are court rulings saying it is acceptable to write ‘alternative to yoghurt’ on products and others claiming the exact opposite,” said Wiederkehr.
“[All in all], the political arena remains dominated by the meat and dairy industry, meaning that buy-in from these traditional sectors is essential for government support,” she added.
Over in Australia, CEO of plant-based industry advocate and think tank Food Frontier Thomas King told us that so far labelling discussions were at the forefront of the country’s regulatory discussions.
“[This is because] some traditional agriculture representatives have challenged the notion of plant-based foods using familiar terms such as ‘milk’, ‘sausage’ or ‘mince’,” he said.
Food Frontier supports the use of familiar terms in labels, citing the importance of these to prevent consumer confusion.
“Clear, familiar terms that enable product understanding are good for both consumers and business, and help ensure Australia’s competitiveness in this fast-growing, multi-billion-dollar global sector,” said King.
“[We] are confident that regulators will see the benefit of plant-based food producers using [these terms] along with qualifiers, as terms like ‘sausage’ denote the utility of a product, not its ingredients, ultimately helping consumers navigate the marketplace more easily.”
Trends driving plant-based market growth
Apart from the usual health and wellness and sustainability concerns, a shift in consumer’s dietary patterns were cited as one of the main factors driving plant-based growth towards the mainstream in Europe.
As an example, a 2018 IRI study revealed that 39% of consumers in Europe consume plant-based, meat-free foods despite their diet whereas other research estimated over half of the population in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Poland and Spain to be flexitarian, meaning their meals are primarily plant-based despite occasional animal-based product consumption.
“[Meat] and dairy alternatives have entered the mainstream in Europe and are no longer consumed by strict vegans and vegetarians alone,” said Wiederkehr.
“The increasing number of companies from the meat and dairy industries entering the space clearly signals the direction in which the food industry in Europe is heading.”
King said that in Australia, traditional motivation was another key driver of the local plant-based market.
“Australia’s close relationship with Asian cultures and cuisines has seen many decades of familiarity with traditional plant proteins such as tofu and seitan,” he said.
“[The proliferation of plant-based products in Australia have included] a greater availability of traditional meat alternatives in addition to those made from mycoprotein [and] more recently, ‘next generation’ plant-based meat products [produced using more advanced technology].
He also voiced concerns about plant-based meat supply in the country, saying that it was ‘still not meeting local demand’.
Increasing supply would likely require the development of new technology, but this would likely lead to higher price points, said Wiederkehr.
“[That said], we expect the playing field to level out in the future as economies of scale [and cellular agriculture] come into play,” she concluded.
Wiederkehr and King will be speaking at the Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit on March 29 in Singapore.