The Senate, not a place noted for its speed, is in a rush to pass a federal labeling law for genetically engineered ingredients. Such foods have been around for more than 20 years, but Vermont has a state-level labeling law going into effect on July 1, and the food industry wants to supersede it and other local laws to avoid having to comply with a regulatory patchwork. The $28.3 million spent by food companies and industry groups to lobby against GMO labeling laws in 2014 alone certainly had something to do with the hurry.
The association was started by Michele Simon, a public health and vocal food-industry critic, who will serve as its executive director. Simon has made a name for herself in food policy circles for publishing report after report aimed at taking the industry to task over an array of issues, from unmasking “food industry front groups” like ObesityMyths.com to detailing the uncomfortably close relationship between nutrition groups and soda companies.
When asked what made her switch from critic to advocate, Simon laughed, joking, “You want to know why I sold out?” But she does see it as a change and one that she welcomes. “I got weary of continuing to complain” about the myriad problems in the industry, she said. A year and a half ago she started to offer legal services to companies, which was her first step toward spending her time "in a more constructive way.”
It wasn’t too long after that that Unilever sued Hampton Creek, the maker of egg-less Just Mayo, over the marketing of its signature product. The multinational company, which owns Hellmann’s and Best Foods, the leading mayonnaise brands, argued that Just Mayo was misleading customers because, according to the Food and Drug Administration, mayonnaise must contain some form of egg.
“Hampton Creek is completely up front about what it’s doing: making a plant-based mayonnaise,” Simon wrote at the time. “Moreover, the product has been covered in major media outlets like Time, Forbes, and Fortune so how can it possibly be deceiving anybody?”
The lawsuit was later dropped, but between it and the labeling problems that Miyoko Schinner ran into in California with her nut-protein-based cheeses—which cannot be labeled as “cheese”—Simon saw a problem she felt she had a solution to.
“All of this to me was a sign that this industry needed a collective voice to face these issues,” she said.
But consumer habits are changing too, and foods that are healthier for people and the environment are becoming more popular. Plant-based protein could account for fully a third of overall protein sales by 2054, according to Lux Research, and the global market could hit $5 billion by 2020. Instead of simply getting by with the existing laws and regulations, companies in the growing sector could start to define and influence policies that are more to their advantage. Both veteran and upstart companies that make planted-based foods are interested in the prospect.
The Plant Based Foods Association’s board includes higher-ups from Daiya Foods, The Tofurky Company, and Miyoko’s Kitchen, and it is launching with a total of 23 charter members. Dues paid by companies will finance much of the association’s lobbying efforts and other operation costs, with donations making up the balance. Simon said the sliding scale for dues allows smaller companies and start-ups to join without being stretched financially. Annual dues are $250 for companies with less than $250,000 in gross sales, and the scale tops out at $25,000 annually for companies with more than $500 million in gross sales.
Jaime Athos, CEO of The Tofurky Company, sits at the most-established end of the spectrum of involved companies: The business he helms opened 35 years ago, and its signature product debuted 20 years ago. But even if Tofurky has come to mean something particular, naming meatless foods in a way that consumers and regulators will understand and agree with, respectively, isn’t all that easy. Athos hopes that the association can help change that.
“If you make a vegan cheese, you want to call it cheese or some variant of that,” he said. People are buying it to use it as they would cheese, Athos contends, not a nondairy vegan spread or whatever bit of tricky language companies use to label plant-based cheese products. “The common or usual name for something that tastes like cheese and looks like cheese should be cheese,” he added.
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It’s a problem that exists across the industry: “What do we call a hot dog that doesn’t have any meat in it?” Athos asked. “What do we call a sausage that doesn’t have any meat in it?”
In the case of Hampton Creek, which faced scrutiny from the FDA following the Unilever lawsuit, subtly changing the labeling proved to be enough to let the Just Mayo brand name stand. but a company that raised $90 million in Series C funding in 2014 has more resources to bring to bear than less well-known companies in the space.
Simon said that the association is “not knocking on FDA's door right away.” But she has hired Elizabeth Kucinich, formerly director of policy at the Center for Food Safety and wife of Dennis Kucinich, to represent the group in D.C., and she is talking with member businesses to establish an agenda.
“There’s all this interest in everything plant-based. And I think that what’s important about a trade group is that it helps sort of smooth the regulatory path,” Simon said. “We want to make sure that the industry is in the right position to respond to the consumer demand, to meet the consumer demand.”
“The animal agriculture industry enjoys a lot of advantage economically and politically,” she added, “and this trade group seeks to level the playing field a bit.”