‘Long-drawn’ battle ahead: Indian plant-based dairy firms take legal recourse to prevent product delisting
Earlier this year, the plant-based industry in India was hit by an order by the Food Safety and Standards Authority India (FSSAI) to online platforms to delist all plant-based products using dairy terms, which the authority had confirmed would also apply to products being sold offline.
At the time, FSSAI Executive Director (Compliance Strategy) Inoshi Sharma had told FoodNavigator-Asia that the manufacturers of all such products, barring those given exceptions such as coconut milk and peanut butter, would need to comply in changing their product names or face the relevant penalties.
“All [food firms] who are manufacturing such products which are in contravention to the above regulatory provisions are being issued notices to modify their product labels suitably to comply with the directions of FSSAI,” said Sharma.
“Those who fail to comply with the said directives may [find themselves in violation of the law] for offences like ‘misbranding’, which are compoundable offences that may [lead to an] imposition of monetary penalties as well as other actions like suspension of licenses, etc.”
Following this order, five local companies – Hershey India, Drums Food International, Veganarke Enterprises, Rakyan Beverages and Istore Direct Trading - have opted to fight back from a legal standpoint, and successfully managed to get a stay on the orders to prevent products being forcibly delisted.
All five firms manufacture plant-based dairy products such as almond milk and oat milk.
During a hearing on the matter in the Delhi High Court, Justice Rekha Palli ruled that e-commerce operators can furnish relevant reports to FSSAI, and FSSAI was free to carry out relevant investigations in accordance with the law after giving due notice to the firms concerned – but that no delisting action will be forced on the relevant firms until the court allows this.
“You can ask for a report [from the e-commerce platforms] at best [but] this is not the manner. You will not take any coercive action [as] this cannot go on without anything [concrete],” said the judge.
The legal battle is far from over as a second hearing will take place later in October, and it is hard to say whether any conclusion can be reached by that time. Overall though, the situation is not expected to be resolved quite so soon, especially for plant-based dairy product manufacturers.
Plant-based industry experts in India believe that relief can only come from the creation of special standards for plant-based dairy - similar to what currently exists for coconut milk and peanut butter - but also that this will be a 'long-drawn affair, mirroring what is happening globally', as conventional dairy is a huge engine of economic growth in the country thus any claims that plant-based products are endangering farmers are taken very seriously.
When FSSAI first proposed draft regulations to ban dairy terms last year, Good Food Institute India Managing director Varun Deshpande had told us that research has shown Indian consumers are not confused about plant-based terms, and that such a move would have impacts on plant-based producers who would need to change branding and handle consumer confusion.
Interestingly, FSSAI also issued a notification on draft regulations for vegan foods a few days before the court hearing took place. No mention was made in these new draft regulations indicating any change to FSSAI’s stance in terms of using dairy terms for any related foods.
A major element of these draft regulations was the creation of a new logo specifically for vegan foods, as well as a raft of specific labelling and display requirements.
“The ‘Green‘ colour of the logo and the leaf depicts that the ingredient/product is of plant origin. [whereas] the letter ‘V‘ identifies the product to be as ‘Vegan‘,” said FSSAI CEO Arun Singhal via a formal notice.
“[All sellers] of vegan foods, either exclusively or as part of retail merchandise, shall store and display such food in a manner distinguishable from non-vegan foods.
“Every package of vegan foods, after the endorsement [from the food authority based on specified guidelines] must carry this logo.”
India already has logos for vegetarian vs non-vegetarian food, i.e. a green dot vs a brown dot.