Plant-based food companies are facing a difficult time around the world with an increasing amount of legislation and litigation on how the government should regulate plant-based food labelling. The regulators claim that using terms that are traditionally used for animal derived products ends up confusing the consumer.
Plant-based food companies typically use the terms “plant-based” or “vegan” on their labels alongside terms like “chicken” or “milk” (e.g., plant-based milk, plant-based chicken, soy milk, etc.) to describe their products to consumers. However, these plant-based foods contain no animal ingredients but replicate the taste, texture, and function of animal products. Several countries, including India, have made or are in the process of making regulations that will ban such labelling by plant-based food companies.
However, players in the US plant-based and vegan segment have started responding to such legislation and guidelines by giving their views on this subject. They insist that the “consumer confusion” argument is pretextual, and that agricultural lobbies simply want to suppress the message that consumers can enjoy the experience of eating “meat” or “dairy” without killing animals. They argue that using such terminology on plant-based foods does not confuse consumers about the ingredients; rather, these words are necessary to accurately convey the taste and uses of new products. Plant-based food companies have challenged state laws, claiming that the laws violate their First Amendment right to free speech.
Now, findings of a first-of-its-kind study throw light on whether consumers are really misguided by the labelling on plant-based and vegan foods. The study undertaken by SSRN addressed the two empirical questions at the heart of the ongoing, constitutional litigation between companies marketing plant-based foods and the US states restricting their labelling practices. First, when companies use words like “beef” and “milk” on products made without animal ingredients, are consumers confused about whether these products come from animals? Second, if companies do not use these words, are consumers more likely to be confused about the taste and function of the plant-based products?
The study surveyed 155 participants. After answering a series of distractor questions, participants answered questions about various plant-based meat and dairy products, including whether they believed these foods were made from animals/animal products, how well they could imagine what the products taste like, and whether they believed the products could be used for various purposes.
The results demonstrate that consumers are “no more likely” to think that plant-based products come from an animal if the product’s name incorporates words traditionally associated with animal products than if it does not. Secondly, omitting words that are traditionally associated with animal products from the names of plant-based products actually causes consumers to be significantly more confused about the taste and uses of these products. Together, the findings imply that legislation prohibiting companies from using words like “beef” and “butter” on their labels does not advance the government’s interest in preventing consumer confusion.
These findings can also strengthen the cause of Indian plant-based milk producers who may soon have to face restrictive guidelines. FSSAI has been deliberating the labelling issue with industry representatives and analysing their responses. A final notification is expected soon on this issue.