New draft guidance issued this month by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the naming of plant-based foods that are marketed and sold as alternatives for milk could set a precedent for clearer labeling of plant-based seafood, according to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI).

While the current draft guidance covers labeling only for plant-based milk alternatives, the FDA wrote in the draft that labeling a product with only "plant based" and omitting a descriptor of the particular legume, nut, grain, seed or other plant source in the name of the food "may be confusing to consumers, as the product would not be readily distinguishable from other types of plant-based milk alternatives."

For example, the draft guidance states that "dairy-free milk" is not an adequate label for a milk that should be otherwise labeled more specifically as walnut milk or oat milk.

If applied to seafood in the same way, the FDA could in the future write similar draft guidelines so that "plant-based fish alternatives" are also not adequate descriptors for those products, and that they violate FDA labeling principles, according to NFI.

The guidance, though not final, is a step in the right direction for the FDA, the NFI said. The NFI has been arguing for years that plant-based seafood alternatives need to be more clearly labeled.

"Highly processed, plant-based products masquerading as seafood for too long have contributed to consumer confusion and openly flouted existing regulations," said NFI President Lisa Wallenda Picard in a statement on the draft Friday.

"We look forward to FDA releasing draft guidance for plant-based seafood alternatives that aligns with the structure it has applied to milk in this draft guidance."

The draft guidance, when finalized, will represent the current thinking of the FDA on the topic, according to the agency. The industry's use of the statements is voluntary.

Mixed opinions

While many traditional seafood companies have criticized the products for their marketing messages -- with some alleging outright fraud -- an increasing number of major companies have embraced plant-based products as a part of their overall line.

Most notably, three of the largest fish finger suppliers to the UK and EU market -- Birds Eye and Iglo parent Nomad Foods, Germany-based Frosta and Young's Seafood parent Sofina -- launched plant-based "fish finger alternatives."

Nomad in particular is banking on the trend, creating a new "Green Cuisine" brand for its products, and marketing it heavily across its markets.

Other seafood groups have also moved into plant-based seafood, either via investment or partnership.

Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods, owned by seafood conglomerate Thai Union Group, itself one of the world's largest global shrimp suppliers, will partner with the Ish Food Company, a Pennsylvania-based plant-based shrimp maker.

Alternative seafood products are an increasingly important sector of the food industry. In 2022, more than $175 million (€162 million) was invested in companies producing or planning to produce alternative seafood items. The investment reflects a 92 percent increase from the $91 million (€84.3 million) invested in the sector in 2020.

Tracking trends in seafood markets