A draft opinion that would place restrictions on the labelling of plant-based dairy alternatives should be torn up, the Plant-based Food Alliance UK (PBFA) said today.
The opinion, drafted in February 2022 by an ad hoc and unaccountable group of trading standards officials, called the Food Standards and Information Focus Group (FSIFG), states that phrases such as “mylk”, “m*lk” , “not m*lk” or “alternative to” a dairy product should be banned.
If published, the guidance could lead to products being pulled from the shelves if a complaint is made about the labelling on a product that falls within its scope.
Despite repeated concerns expressed to Defra by the PBFA late last year about the guidance, Defra told PBFA members this month that responsibility for the issue lies “solely with local authorities and the Trading Standards Officers acting on their behalf”.
The PBFA, which represents the UK’s plant-based food sector, was not consulted during the drafting of the document and is now pushing for it to be rescinded.
“The guidance was drafted behind closed doors and without the consultation of the plant-based food sector,” Alliance CEO, Marisa Heath, said.
“Not only was this developed in an undemocratic process, it is also highly anti-competitive as it restricts consumer choice and seeks to curb a booming industry,” Heath added.
Total unit sales for plant-based milk increased by 17% between 2020-2022, whereas conventional milk unit sales decreased by 6% between 2020 and 2022, according to Nielsen data published by the Good Food Institute Europe.
Consumers are not confused
The guidance is based on the unfounded belief that consumers are confused by names such as “plant-based butter” or “not milk”. But in the US, draft guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued this year stated that the word “milk” could be used for plant-based drinks precisely because consumers were not confused by such labelling.
The EU chose not to impose similar restrictions on dairy descriptor names in 2021 when the European Parliament voted down Amendment 171, which would have censored terms such as “creamy” and “buttery” for plant-based products.
“Not only does the UK guidance assume consumers are stupid, it also goes beyond what is enforceable in the EU, which is ironic bearing in mind that the UK voted to leave the EU on the basis that it would not be tied down by European regulations,” Heath said.
The guidance also goes against efforts by the UK government to make society more sustainable. The production and consumption of plant-based foods emits half the amount of greenhouse gases as animal-based foods, so governments need to be bringing in measures that actively enable societies to shift to more plant rich foods to help tackle climate change.