Trade Group Lobbying for Plant-Based Foods Takes a Seat in Washington

Trade Group Lobbying for Plant-Based Foods Takes a Seat in Washington

- in Politics

The trade associations representing the beef, pork and poultry industries are among the most powerful lobbies in Washington. And they are about to get some company.

A new trade group, the Plant Based Foods Association, has been established to represent makers of proteins derived from peas, soybeans and other nonmeat sources.

“We’re joining the barnyard,” said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and food policy advocate who is founding the new group, which is starting out with 23 companies including old-timers like Tofurky and newcomers like New Wave Foods that all make protein products from plants.

Sales of products incorporating plant proteins grew 8.7 percent over 2014 and 2015 through retailers not including Whole Foods, while overall sales of food products grew 3.7 percent, according to Spins, which collects data on retail sales for the natural and specialty products industries.

Dozens of companies have sprung up to develop foods from plant-derived proteins, and some have caught the attention of venture capital firms. Califia Farms, which makes plant-based “milks” and is a member of the trade group, got $50 million from a single investor, according to CrunchBase.

“At the highest level, we’re seeing a pretty substantial shift in consumer interest in plant-based diets,” said Jeff Dunn, president of the fresh division of Campbell’s Soup. “That’s manifesting itself in lots of interest in plant-based protein among companies like us and how it can be used in production.”

Mr. Dunn says consumer interest in plant proteins is driven by a number of factors, including a belief that they are more healthy and have less impact on the environment than meat. This month, Campbell, which is not a member of the new trade group, is introducing new flavors of juices, three from its Bolthouse Farms brand and three from its 1915 brand, and will note on the packages that they contain plant proteins.

“The challenge with pea proteins was getting the perfect texture and mouthfeel,” said Scott LaPorta, president of Bolthouse.

Elizabeth Kucinich, wife of the former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, will represent the Plant Based Foods Association in Washington, and she said it planned to represent a range of companies, not just those whose entire product line is built on plant proteins.

Ms. Kucinich has already participated in discussions about food policy in Congress and written a letter to the Agriculture Department expressing disappointment over the failure to include a clear recommendation on reducing red meat consumption in the new dietary guidelines.

In general, she said, her goal was to “level the playing field” so that plant-based foods got the same consideration as meats in debates about school lunches, dietary recommendations and even environmental issues. “It’s really to make sure we have a seat at the table,” Ms. Kucinich said.

The association will probably lobby, for instance, for federal subsidies for plant-based milks to be served in school lunchrooms. (Schools are currently reimbursed only for serving dairy milk.) And it will take on the Food and Drug Administration’s “standards of identity,” which prescribe what ingredients and in what quantities are needed to, say, call cheese “cheese” on packaging and labels.

Miyoko Schinner, founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen, ran into exactly that problem when she began selling “cheese” made from nut proteins. She was careful not to use the word “cheese” on her packaging, instead giving her products names like Aged English Sharp Farmhouse and High Sierra Rustic Alpine, but the California Department of Public Health raised questions.

“I chose language to evoke a feeling of cheddar, adjectives that would bring it to mind, and they said you can’t do that, it isn’t cheese,” Ms. Schinner said. “They kept saying it’s not cheese — so what is it?”

The regulators eventually decided to allow her to call it a “cultured nut product.”

Now that the trade association has been formed, she says she has begun using the word “cheese” on her website and Facebook page.

“The face of food is changing, how we make food and the origins of it,” she said. “It’s time for the regulatory system to catch up.”


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