cheese

The Path Forward for Plant-based Protein Names by Glen Jameson

Check out this article - https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canadian-cattle-producers-back-quebec-farmers-beef-with-beyond-meat/ - it looks like some cattlemen associations have submitted complaints to the CFIA about nomenclature used by Beyond Meat and others in the plant-based protein/meat universe. Fair enough. CFIA is highly reactive to competitor complaints, a fundamental tool for food regulation in Canada. This is not a malicious or anticompetitive move in and of itself. I worked with Alexandra Gill of the Globe and Mail recently on a cashew cheese complaint against Blue Heron Vegan Creamery in British Columbia - https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/small-business/marketing/article-vegan-food-producer-ordered-to-drop-the-word-cheese-from-its/. And I recorded a podcast with @cheftimony in which we went in depth on this topic, which you can find here: https://cheftimony.com/2019/05/02/vegan-1-0/. In the podcast, we discussed the hard and tight path that the CFIA has to forge.

The CFIA needs to acknowledge the definitions set out in the legislation that it is charged with enforcing, but it also needs to acknowledge changing consumer understandings of what the “common name” for a product can be. Cashew cheese, for example, is understood by most people who eat it as cashew cheese and a dairy-free product. At the same time, as pointed out by the Quebec Cattle Producers, the feds have a definition for “meat products” in the Safe Food for Canadians Act. “Meat product” generally means a product of a food animal carcass (the quote is a little misleading – there is no definition for “meat” at the federal level except for as an interpretive section of a volume incorporated by reference into the Safe Food For Canadians Regulations on Standards of Identity).

This, ironically, reminds an increasingly large and growing consumer segment why they shifted from meat-protein based diets in the first place (see any recent research by Sylvain Charlebois). The point is: the regulatory definition should probably supersede any common name, even if that usage is overwhelmingly used by consumers to refer to the product in their everyday lives. Parliament thought about the term, they decided what it means.

So, plant-based protein: Beyond Meat obviously doesn’t fit the definition of meat, so the CFIA needs to find a common name for the product that wouldn’t be misleading.

Plant-based supporters would suggest that, in industry and regulatory documents, the terms ‘peanut butter’ and ‘coconut milk’ and the ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ of a fruit are commonly used terms within the food industry and the cattle industry seems comfortable with those usages. And that plant-based meat is marketed in such a different way that you would have to be a ‘complete rube’, as I was (embarrassingly) quoted as saying in the Globe, to believe that someone would be confused.

Advocates for the meat industry would suggest that the difference between those classic examples, coconut and peanut butters, and the plant-based meat example is that plant-based meat is used in exactly the same manner as real meat, and thus confusion and market chaos ensues! Furthermore, bringing a product to market under the term "meat product" is a privilege: it’s highly regulated and inspected and experiences a thorough safety framework in a way that few other products do. AND, it’s in the regulations! So, your mission is clear: enforce your laws, CFIA!

We’ve seen a metric buttload of litigation on these topics in the US, both in the civil context and involving the FDA, both of which we should hope to avoid in Canada. Silk soy and almond milks and yogurts, Horizon yogurts, Muscle Milk, Trader Joe’s alternative non-dairy products, Blue Diamond Grower’s almond milks are prime examples. In Canada, we already see a more moderated approach: the Blue Heron Creamery cashew cheese example, the path forward for CFIA was some clear product modifiers: “100% Dairy-Free Cheese” is acceptable! Now that the CFIA is clearly open to some additional modifiers to bring a non-compliant product using a defined term into compliance. Most regulators would have said to cashew cheese producers that it’s a slippery slope and that next you’ll have us calling plant-based meat “plant-based meat”. And indeed that’s where we are.

So, without tying itself into logical knots, I'm hopeful that CFIA finds some compromise and offers clear guidance. I’m curious to see where they land with plant-based meat. Hopefully this all stays out of the courts, but I’m not sure everyone is going to be happy once this has concluded.