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Alternative Proteins and Politics

November 4, 2020

Alternative proteins like cultured and plant-based meats face a political battle over branding, labeling, and its hope for the future.

In recent years, there has been a cultural revolution in the plant-based eating space. The tides of the food industry have been shifting to reflect consumers’ increased desire to eat plant-based products, leaving enormous potential for companies looking into alternatives to animal-based products. Despite the numerous health benefits, environmental benefits, and surge of consumers, backlash within the animal-based agricultural industry has been significant.

On October 22nd, 2020, FFAC hosted “Alternative Proteins and Politics: On Labels, Threats, and Misconceptions” to discuss the complex future and regulation of alternative proteins. Panel guests included Emily Hennessee, Policy Coordinator at the Good Food Institute, Jaime Athos, CEO of The Tofurky Company, and Vince Sewalt, Head of Regulatory Science & Advocacy at DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, and moderated by Gabriel Wildgen. Panelists covered the precedent and current progress of plant-based options, the political turmoil behind product nomenclature, and their hopes for the future.

The face of plant-based protein is rapidly evolving; our panelists discussed the precedent set by fermented products like Impossible Foods and GMO crops. An emerging product with great potential is cultivated meat, or meat grown in a lab from cells with an identical genetic profile to animal products but without the harmful ethical and environmental side effects. Although the development of cultivated meat is still in its infancy, Sewalt predicts it will be easily integrated into the meat industry as it shares the same overall composition as typical meat products. Both, he and Hennessee, emphasized the need for federal action on research and uniform regulation of these products. Lack of action in the application of federal law to GMO products resulted in a patchwork of confusing, state-mandated laws. Hennessee works to set the stage on behalf of the ever-growing spectrum of alternative meat products for an easy transition into the commercial market. A collaborative effort of the trailblazing companies in this field will be important to realize a smooth regulatory progress, Sewalt stated, and the burgeoning industry could learn from the traditional fermentation space.

Products that have already entered the market are also facing resistance. Athos expanded on the legal action faced by Tofurky in Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas for allegedly misleading consumers in calling their products “veggie burgers” or “plant-based meat”. This spat over nomenclature is, as Athos puts it, “simply absurd”. As a leader in the alternative meat field, Athos hopes the legal challenges Tofurky faces will pave the way for other plant-based proteins to thrive. Furthermore, Tofurky has also faced hesitation from some plant-based communities that fear their products are too processed. Here, Athos also challenges this nomenclature. Both Athos and Sewalt reject the notion that “processed” should be seen as negative, with the latter explaining that the creation method of the product is not relevant for its nutritional value as all proteins are ultimately broken down into their amino acid building blocks. This statement was echoed by Hennessee, who ended the conversation by stating that she hopes that this diverse market continues to grow and for innovation to succeed.

The panel ended with each panelist voicing their hopes for the future. Each emphasized the need for more scientists to look into the development of plant-based and cultured meats, eggs, and dairy products and the enormous job potential in these industries. The market shows that consumers’ desire for alternative proteins is growing rapidly. Politics should not get in the way of taming their appetite for these products.

The first time I heard about cultivated meat and alternative proteins was in my first quarter of college in an introductory biotechnology class.  I was in awe.  It was almost like magic - the way that these researchers were able to recreate the taste and feel of meat simply by breaking it down into its components.  It wasn't magic - it was innovation.  It is the reason that the Food Studies minor is one of the most popular pursued minors at my campus; we are surrounded by a community dedicated to challenging the boundaries of science to create a more sustainable and ethically humane world.

The future of plant-based foods is bright, and FFAC is here to support and spread this message.

Sara Aoki is an FFAC intern.