Consumers need transparency in labeling of plant-based meat alternatives
Agenda-Setting Report Identifies Seven Priorities for Regulatory Action
June 9, 2022
Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org, (202) 207-2832
Washington, DC – As more plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) that closely mimic the look, taste, and cooking properties of traditional meat products enter the U.S. market almost daily, the National Consumers League (NCL) today released a report with seven priorities for regulatory action to ensure that labels of so-called “meatless meats” readily identify the protein source and inform consumers of the nutritional composition of each PBMA product.
Issued as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing draft guidance for food manufacturers on the labeling of plant-based milks and alternatives to animal-derived foods,
the report underscores the importance of consumer-focused labeling to sustain the growth of the plant-based meats category, which has been fueled by consumer optimism. Findings were informed by an expert panel meeting held in 2021 that explored a standard of identity for PBMAs and based on an assessment of the PBMA marketplace which NCL conducted in 2022 to identify action steps that will significantly impact public awareness and understanding of PBMAs and can be readily implemented.
Providing up-to-date information on the issues affecting the labeling of plant-based meat alternatives, the report – Education and Transparency in Labeling Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: A Consumer-Focused Agenda to Improve Understanding and Decision-Making of Plant-Based Meats –documents promising projections for PBMA sales in the U.S. and globally. Recent polling shows that two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) consumed plant-based meat alternatives in 2021, and two in five (42 percent) ate PBMAs at least weekly. Due to consumer demand, the plant-based meat category delivered $1.4 billion in sales in the U.S. in 2021 – up from $962 million in 2019  – and a Bloomberg Intelligence report projects a 500 percent increase in global sales of plant-based foods by 2030. Moreover, a recent market analysis predicts a growth rate of almost 20 percent globally for plant-based meats between 2021 and 2026 if consumer interest in PBMAs continues to grow.
Yet, the NCL report points to marketplace challenges for plant-based meat substitutes. Currently, many brands define PBMAs differently and there is a lack of clarity about how to use traditional meat, dairy, and egg terminology on product labels. Additionally, only half of Americans were “very” or “somewhat” familiar with PBMAs in 2020 and 30 percent had no knowledge, according to a Gallup survey. This lack of understanding is concerning because new plant-based meats are unique in their formulations and processing techniques– meaning products can differ in calories, saturated fat, sodium content, and levels of protein, fiber, vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and other nutrients. Plant-based meats may also contain a food allergen depending on the source of the plant proteins in the product.
 International Food Information Council. Consumption Trends, Preferred Names and Perceptions of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives. November 3, 2021
 Good Food Institute. US retail market data for the plant-based industry.
 Fortune. Plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030. August 11, 2021
 ResearchandMarket.com. Plant-Based Meat Market-Global Industry Analysis (2018-2020) & Growth Trends and Market Forecast (2021-2026). January 11, 2022
 Gallup. Four in Ten Americans Have Eaten Plant-Based Meats. January 28, 2020
“Plant-based meat alternatives are a popular and valued part of our food supply,” said Sally Greenberg, NCL’s Executive Director. “This is why the public needs regulatory policies that ensure the labels on these products are accurate, complete, and provide the qualifiers necessary for consumers to understand what they are purchasing.”
As the agency that regulates plant-based foods in the U.S., FDA shares this viewpoint and has sought information on a range of issues to issue draft guidance on the labeling of plant-based foods. Therefore, NCL prepared the report to articulate the consumer’s voice on PBMA labeling and lay out a blueprint for FDA and the food industry to ensure the information needs of the public are addressed. Specifically, the report identifies seven priorities for labeling, naming, and marketing plant-based meats alternatives that are in the best interest of consumers:
- Establish a definition for “plant-based meat alternatives” that will unite all stakeholders. Because brands define the term “plant-based” differently, FDA guidance should define what constitutes a “plant-based meat alternative” to promote consistency in labeling across the category.
- Ensure brand names are not deceptive. NCL’s position is it is a deceptive practice to use brand names for PBMAs that suggest a product contains meat, seafood, or eggs when none is present. Even when the label states the product contains no meat or eggs, consumers are influenced by the brand name, especially if packaging and promotional content feature pictures and iconography of animals or the type of meat.
- Require that labels on PBMAs are standardized and clarify the protein source. For labels of PBMAs to be transparent, the naming and labeling of PBMAs must be uniform and consistent and ensure that consumers can readily identify the protein source. Accordingly, FDA should require that all labels and advertisements for PBMAs must:
- Use a common name that links the protein source and the form, such as “soy burger.”
- Make clear that the product contains some animal protein in addition to plant-based proteins like soy. Qualifying terms can include “plant-based” and “made from plants.”
- Make clear when the PBMA contains no meat. These terms can include vegan,” “meatless,” “vegetarian,” “veggie,” and “veggie-based” as well as “plant-based” and “made from plants.”
- Place the phrase “contains no meat,” “contains no poultry,” or “contains no eggs” on the principal display panel of vegan PBMAs near the common name and in letters at least the same size and prominence as shown in the product’s common name.
- Not use pictures, icons, or vignettes on the packaging, in marketing materials or in advertising that suggests nutrition superiority or that the product is the same as the comparable meat product.
- Regulate health/nutrition claims for PBMAs. Consistent with how FDA regulates the health claims allowed on traditional food products, FDA guidance must make clear that nutrition/health claims must undergo agency review and there must be significant scientific agreement that the claim is supported by available scientific evidence.
- Ensure website, social media, and advertising content for PBMAs conforms to what is on the product label. The guidance must make clear that FDA considers websites and social media to be an extension of the product label, meaning the claims and information that PBMA manufacturers put online must conform what FDA allows on the label.
- Address the nutritional composition of the PBMAs in FDA guidance. In Canada, proposed guidelines for plant-based protein foods would include nutritionally required amounts of vitamins and mineral nutrients that must be added to the PBMA product and a minimum limit of total protein content, among other requirements. While NCL supports this approach, FDA should at least recommend levels of key vitamins and nutrients in its guidance.
- Educate consumers about the nutritional composition of plant-based protein alternatives. It is in the public interest for FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – along with nutrition societies – to conduct education programs that explain the nutritional composition of plant-based protein food products. This will allow consumers to make informed decisions based on science-based information.
About the Report
To prepare the report, NCL built on the deliberations of an online expert panel meeting – Meeting Consumers’ Needs for Modernizing Food Standards of Identity: General Principles for Naming and Labeling Plant-Based Meat Alternatives – co-hosted by NCL and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in November 2021. Exploring whether new standards of identity (SOI) for PBMAs could lead to better labeling of these meat substitutes, the meeting started with a review of the U.S. market for PBMAs and featured breakout sessions where regulatory specialists, market researchers, consumer advocates and food industry leaders debated the need for a standard of identity for PBMAs and discussed consumers’ needs for education and labeling of PBMAs.
The November 2021 meeting produced consensus that there is not enough evidence to support a standard of identity for PBMAs and in fact, that a SOI could hamper innovation within this new category of plant-based foods. Yet, the meeting generated important insights on the need for consumer education about plant-based meats, a common nomenclature for describing PBMAs, and transparency in labeling so consumers will know the composition of the products they buy. Thus, when FDA announced plans to issue draft guidance on PBMAs in 2022, NCL used the deliberations from the November 2021 meeting as the foundation for developing recommendations for how FDA can ensure labels of PBMA products meet consumers’ needs. The final step was a literature review NCL conducted in March and April 2022 to add marketplace data on PBMAs and apply lessons learned from consumer research, voluntary labeling initiatives, legislation passed in different states label PBMAs, and labeling rules for PBMAs proposed or instituted in other countries.
About the National Consumers League (NCL)
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.