Keith Nunes 2019

KANSAS CITY — The debate about how dairy and meat alternatives should be labeled and marketed is intensifying in Europe and the United States. Proponents for rules that do not allow analog manufacturers to call their products “milk,” “meat” or other terms associated with conventional products claim the issue is about transparency and avoiding consumer confusion. Defenders counter consumers are not confused and that proponents are trying to stifle market growth for products consumers clearly demand. Interestingly, the issue appears to be on divergent paths in Europe and the United States.

The European Union’s Court of Justice ruled in 2017 that plant-based dairy products may not be marketed with the designations of “milk,” “cream,” “butter,” “cheese,” or “yogurt.” Those designations are reserved under EU law for animal products. In the European marketplace today, dairy alternatives are marketed as “vegetable drinks,” “barista drinks,” or as a “plant-based alternative to yogurt.”

More recently, France will ban the use of plant-based meat alternatives being marketed as “steak” or “sausage” beginning in October. The rule only applies to meat alternatives produced in France and not to imports from other EU countries, but advocates hope the rules will be enacted in other member countries. Proponents of the rules argue they are needed in order to avoid consumer confusion.

In the United States, the consumer confusion argument has not held in court. A 2019 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that consumers understand the difference between products labeled as soy milk or almond milk versus dairy milk. State legislatures have sought to establish rules regarding how dairy and meat analogs must be labeled, but they have had limited success.

Advocates for the need for clear delineation between the labeling and marketing of alternatives have not been dissuaded. Despite not passing in 2017, the federal Dairy Pride Act was reintroduced in 2021. The bill would prohibit the sale of any food that uses the market name of a dairy product unless the food is the milk of a hooved animal, is derived from such milk or contains such milk as a primary ingredient. It has bipartisan support but is facing strong resistance from the manufacturers and marketers of dairy alternatives.

Earlier this month the National Chicken Council (NCC), Washington, asked the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture for clearer guidance and stricter enforcement of meat-alternative product labels. The poultry industry trade group is urging the agencies to issue clearer guidance defining how to name plant-based products and prioritize enforcement for products being marketed in what the group believes is a misleading manner. In comments, the NCC added it is concerned plant-based proteins marketed as “chicken” are misbranded under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because their labeling indicates that the products contain real chicken meat and are not nutritionally comparable to real chicken meat.

Tellingly, despite the differing paths Europe and the United States have taken to date in the regulation of dairy- and meat-alternative nomenclature, the markets for both classes of products in both regions continue to grow. While the intensifying debate may seem urgent to industry executives, it appears consumers are looking beyond names and making purchasing decisions based on the benefits they perceive in alternative and conventional products.