KANSAS CITY — The ongoing debate over what products like almond milk and meat created through cellular generation may be labeled and commercially called has tremendous financial stakes. Like the value of an established brand, the value of an established product name is significant, and food industry regulators must balance the potential of innovative and emerging technologies with the need to prevent confusion in the marketplace.
The debate over what may be called “milk” is not new. Dairy producers have been fighting for decades for the Food and Drug Administration to enforce milk’s standard of identity. They argue that the standard of identity for milk is clear, and the makers of plant-based beverages must stop describing their products as milk.
The makers of soy milk and almond milk respond by noting the nomenclature does not violate the regulations because the name incorporates additional qualifying language. Calling such products soy milk and almond milk clearly differentiates them from regular milk.
Omitted from this explanation is whether the use of the word milk may allow the manufacturers of soy and almond milks to benefit from the millions of dollars that have been invested by dairy producers to build a marketing- and research-based health halo around milk as defined by F.D.A. regulations. It is impossible to know now, but it is worth considering how much traction such products would have found in the marketplace if they had been labeled “almond juice” or “soy beverage?”
It is incumbent on food companies and the government that the product a consumer buys meets their expectations.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the meat industry as the debate over how product manufactured through the slaughter and disassembly of carcasses and product generated from the cells of a single carcass and grown in a laboratory setting should be differentiated. At a recent meeting convened by the F.D.A. on the subject, numerous speakers questioned if the laboratory generated product may even be called meat. A representative of the American Meat Science Association said not enough research has been done to determine if cellular-generated meat meets the criteria to be called beef, pork or chicken.
In addition to increased competition if such products are defined as meat, the producers of beef, pork and chicken have invested billions of dollars over the years to research, create and support marketing programs to promote specific products and brands. Like dairy producers, the idea newcomers could capitalize on such an investment at no cost leaves many meat producers frustrated.
In July, the European Court of Justice ruled that such gene-editing technologies as Crispr must be regulated in the same manner as those technologies that produce genetically modified organisms. The ruling has the potential to stigmatize the benefits of gene editing even though the processes are different, most notably that no foreign DNA is introduced through the gene editing process.
The food and beverage industry, like many other industries, is at an intersection where advancements are occurring at a rapid pace. These changes often have the potential to disrupt entire markets and, while innovation should always be encouraged, it is incumbent on food companies and the government that the product a consumer buys meets their expectations. Such a mission is a part of the very foundation of the F.D.A. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it must remain a part of its future.