I’ve read with interest and some puzzlement the back-and-forth chat about the labeling of plants as seafood. It is an important discussion, and one folks in the dairy industry did not have 15 years ago.

I majored in history in college (yes, leading NFI is where a College of the Holy Cross history degree lands you). Consequently, I firmly believe in Santayana’s saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So, let’s look at some history and sprinkle in relevant data and facts.

Guest Commentary

John Connelly is the president of the National Fisheries Institute, North America's largest seafood trade association.

Nielsen numbers show sales of non-dairy “milks” have risen more than 23 percent since 2015, while sales of real cow’s milk have fallen. Plant-based alternative beverages now account for about 13 percent of total “milk” sales in the United States.

The current regulatory argument being made is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has allowed the facsimiles to be labeled as “milk” for so long that the term itself has become the common name.

All this, despite the fact that FDA’s standard of identity for milk clearly states the product must “come from a healthy cow.” And to paraphrase former FDA Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb…almonds and soy don’t have teats.

Currently, plant-based product labeling is governed by a 'label it until they tell me I can’t' mentality

I have been bemused when reading comments from those who do not invest in NFI but seek to explain what they think our policies and positions are. I tend to pay more attention to those whose signature is on the bottom right of that paper I earn every two weeks.

Let me be the one to share our position: NFI has publicly and repeatedly stated that plant-based foods are an important innovation and serve a population segment looking for alternatives. Heck, some of our leading companies are investing or partnering with plant-based businesses. What NFI has clearly stood for over the years is equal regulatory and labeling treatment of all foods to avoid consumer confusion.

NFI members must adhere to a 5,000-word-seafood-labeling regulation designed to ensure consumer confidence and guarantee shoppers are provided an accurate description of the product they’re purchasing.

Currently, plant-based product labeling is governed by a “label it until they tell me I can’t” mentality. This is a plant-based seafood executive’s version of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’ “fake it until you make it” strategy.

Here’s the bottom line — NFI’s members do not want to risk labeling lunacy that could affect seafood sales in 2030 because of inaction in 2021.

Some commenters have suggested that people fully know they are not buying seafood when choosing plants disguised as fish. Actual data shows otherwise.

A study conducted by the consumer research firm FoodMinds found between 29 and 35 percent of consumers surveyed believed plant-based seafood products contained real seafood.

An additional 6-8 percent were simply unsure what they contained. For NGOs and others that demand consumer transparency, where is the outrage that companies are deceiving American shoppers? Is it because these new products are currently having a glow-up?

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The FoodMinds research looked at the health and nutrition of seafood and plants as well. And while three of the five plant-based alternative seafood products featured were less nutritious than their real counterparts (less protein, more total and saturated fat, and more

sodium), between 55-59 percent of consumers thought they all had similar nutritional content to actual fish. Where are the demands for transparency from public health groups that seek a healthier diet for Americans?

Then there’s the question of intent. Are some companies intentionally mudding the waters with confusing labeling? If they weren’t trying to confuse consumers, why not just tell them what’s in the package? “Mushed Veggies Pressed Into a Shape” may not be a marketer’s dream – but at least it would be accurate.

As history would suggest, the FDA needs to act on labels before they become a common name. Data shows consumers do not know what is in these packages. Facts show many of these products are nutritionally inferior. Is it any wonder these fakes hide what they actually sell?

Great companies are built on innovation. Shady companies are built on confidence games. So, is this the “wrong fight” to engage in? Absolutely not. Fair treatment under the law is a cornerstone of a democratic system. Fair treatment of consumers is just good business sense.

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