National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern offers a simple piece of advice to the seafood industry regarding the wave of new plant-based analogs making their way into the market with an aggressive marketing message that their products are superior to seafood: Fight back.
Speaking on a panel titled, “Fishless Fish: The impact of plant-based and cell-cultured products on traditional seafood and other proteins,” Mulhern said the dairy industry “played nice” with what he called the “imitation milk” sector for too long.
“Four to five years ago … we decided not to play so nice and … deploy a new strategy, rais[ing] visibility of the issue with consumers, go to Capitol Hill to get legislators to pay attention and really put a spotlight on this issue,” Mulhern said. “I’m very pleased to see in the last five years it has now grown into much broader issue. It’s an issue for all of us producing natural foods in the protein category, and I’m optimistic about the prospects of action, and just raising the visibility of discussion, even among consumers … People want to know what’s in the food they’re eating.”
Like seafood, the dairy market is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mulhern said the agency has taken occasional action in the 40 years imitation dairy products have been on the market, but only after being pushed by the dairy industry. The National Milk Producers Federation has been urging the FDA to more aggressively police the labels used on products like soy milk and almond milk under authority the organization claims the FDA already has, while simultaneously lobbying for legislation that would make it harder for imitation products to be labeled as milk. Its argument is mainly being made on nutritional grounds, Mulhern said.
“[We] don’t [want them to] use dairy terminology if the product doesn’t have dairy in it. If it has the same nutrition, call it a substitute. If it’s nutritionally inferior, it’s supposed to be called an imitation. That’s the law, it’s just not being enforced,” Mulhern said. “Across the board for all of us, the issue is that consumer deception is at play here. These products have every right to be in the marketplace – it’s a free marketplace – just don’t be deceptive. Don’t call something what it’s not.”
Even as he protested against their marketing strategies, Mulhern denied that milk analogs had inflicted a serious blow to the dairy industry’s bottom line. The recent bankruptcy filings of two of the largest milk producers in the country were due to issues unrelated to competition from imitators. He said U.S. consumers are drinking less milk overall, switching instead to water, coffee, tea, and sports drinks. He told the members of the seafood industry present for the panel that imitation seafood did not present a mortal threat to their business.
“Should you be concerned? Yes,” Mulhern said. “Will it be the death of your industry? No.”
While Mulhern decried the plant-based sector’s portrayal of its situation as a David vs. Goliath fight against big agriculture, the reality is more nuanced, Mulhern said. Many of the plant-based start-ups are backed by major venture capital funds and even national governments, including Singapore’s.
Danielle Beck, the director of government affairs at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, noted the Good Food Institute – a nonprofit supporting plant-based and cultivated (or cell-based) meat companies – now has 60 employees.
“It’s a well-funded activist organization,” she said. “They make it out to be big beef versus the poor, helpless plant guys. That’s how this fight is portrayed in the media.”
Beck said despite splashy marketing campaigns that have caught national attention, her organization isn’t worried about plant-based products replacing real meat in the marketplace.
“Plant-based products have a consumption projection of just a few ounces per capita, whereas with beef, it’s 53 pounds per capita,” she said. “That said, we’re still taking issue very carefully. The marketing of these products hinges on disparaging beef products. They’ve openly said they want to put the beef industry out of business in the next 10 years. So we’re trying to protect our brand as much as anything.”
For Beck’s association, that involves simultaneously calling for federal legislation that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture – the beef’s industry’s sole federal regulator – more power to enforce labeling requirements, while also pushing for stiffer laws at the state level to introduce meat labeling standards.
“The USDA is chomping at bit to do this, it just doesn’t have the oversight right now,” she said.
Tim Fires, president of marketing firm The NPD Group, said the top reason more consumers are turning toward plant-based products is health.
“Consumers are trying to add protein while eliminating unhealthy food from their diets,” he said.
Fires said it would be a mistake to dismiss the plant-based movement as a passing fad.
“I’m 100-percent sure this is not a fad,” he said. “Consumers have not given up their desire to eat more protein. Most don’t need more protein, but they want it and they think need it. There younger generation – and we’ve talked about the power of Gen Z as consumers – is really into making its own choices and selections on food, and they buy into this.”
Fires said he couldn’t make a prediction for how plant-based shrimp and fish analogs would affect the seafood industry.
“It hits different industries differently, so we can’t really say how it’s going to impact seafood. Obviously, the seafood industry has a lot of good advantages on protein. But this is an ongoing trend and I think we will continue to see growth rates that we’re seeing today,” he said.
The panel’s moderator, Santa Monica Seafoods President and CEO Roger O’Brien, called plant-based foods a “threat” and said the seafood industry should learn from other industries, like beef and dairy, which have been “fighting this war for some time now.”
“The truth is these plant-based seafood products generally contain no fish. If they’re trying to entice our seafood-loving consumers by calling these products by seafood-sounding names, let’s talk truth, these seafood products are fakes. They’re trying to imitate seafood in name, appearance, and taste,” he said.
O’Brien said the seafood industry needed to fight against the claim that plant-based products are healthier.
“These products are generally not healthier for you. Most of them qualify to be labeled as ultra-processed foods with a long list of ingredients and additives, some of which should scare the heck out of your average consumer. People who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods are more likely to be develop diabetes, heart disease, and yes, even cancer. And ultra-processed foods are where most people get the majority of their calories from,” he said.
Beck and Mulhern called for the seafood industry to join them in their “barnyard fight” against what they called the plant-based sector’s “deceptive” labeling techniques.
“It’s a multi-pronged battle to engage in. It is regulatory, it is legislative, it is federal, it is state, and it’s definitely with the media. It’s a story of deception. These products should be in the marketplace, but market them for what they are, not for what they’re not,” Mulhern said. “If we’re all working together, I think we can turn the tide on this and get more enforcement of the standards and more clarity in place.”
O’Brien called on the seafood industry to join the battle.
“We need to keep working with NFI and some of the other protein industries that are taking on this fight,” O’Brien said. “We need to be there with our time, our money, and our commitment.”
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