The Plant Based Foods Association launched this month and is on a mission to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace for plant-based foods intended to replace animal products.
“The other sectors of the food and beverage industry have a representative in Washington, but until now plant-based food companies didn’t have anywhere to go for representation,” said Michele Simon, a long-time health advocate and lawyer who is taking the association’s helm as executive director.
She explained to FoodNavigator-USA that now is the time to launch the association because “the plant-based industry has matured to the point that it is worth $3.5 billion and is no longer a niche industry relegated to the natural food world.”
Association would help fuel growth
The association will help companies seize and further fuel the plant-based category’s exponential growth, which surpassed 8.7% in the last two years, according to SPINS data, by educating consumers, retailers and decision makers about the benefits of plant-based eating.
She explained that the plant-based product category has been able to outpace the 3.7% growth of the general food and beverage sector in the past two years in part because the “science is noncontroversial” in showing a plant-based diet is healthier than eating animal products. Specifically, she noted, support for this concept from the United Nations, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and the American Heart Association is helping consumers embrace this revelation.
Plant-based products also are growing quickly because consumers, companies and policy makers better understand concerns about the environmental impact, animal welfare, antibiotic resistance and risks to workers associated with animal-based products, Simon added.
“But what is really driving growth at the consumer level has more to do with the innovations and the foods that this trade group is meant to represent,” she said. She noted multiple advancements in plant-based alternatives to animal products that have improved taste, convenience and accessibility so that consumers who want to reduce or avoid animal product no longer have to feel deprived.
“What is exciting is we are seeing new foods come on the market to help consumers make the transition to plant-based products so they don’t feel like they are giving up foods,” she said. Rather, the products offer bold new flavors and textures and taste good.
Improving product placement, labeling
But to help consumers discover great-tasting plant-based products, Simon said, “we need to come out of the shadows” by gaining more prominent and appropriate product placement in retailers.
She explained that one of the association’s first priorities will be working with member companies to determine the best place to stock plant-based products in retail stores and then negotiate that positioning with retailers by demonstrating consumer demand and the potential profits and gains for retailers as well as manufacturers.
For example, she noted the 14.4% growth in total sales of plant-based milks to $2.1 billion in the last two years has come in large part from the products being offered alongside conventional animal products in the refrigerator section, instead of on shelves next to the bakery items, as they were sold for years.
A longer term goal to improve visibility and sales is to address labeling issues, including standards of identity, which currently often are used by animal-based producers to hold back competing plant-based alternatives, Simon said. For example, nut milks are “in limbo” about whether they can technically use the term milk to describe their products, and vegan cheese alternatives cannot currently use the term cheese, but rather are limited to “cultured nut product.”
Creating a welcoming environment
The association also will strive to create a welcoming environment for all players in the plant-based market regardless of the company’s size or overall portfolio mix, Simon said.
“The five founding board members made a decision to not have this be an exclusive club, but to be very open in the membership criteria. So, companies simply need to make or sell plant-based foods, and we don’t measure how much or ask for proof. We want to build a big tent and want all companies, whether they sell 100% plant-based products or sell just one veggie burger” alongside other animal products, Simon said.
However, she added, the founding members, including Daiya Foods, Follow Your Heart, Miyoko’s Kitchen, The Tofurky Company and Upton’s Naturals, decided the board will be made up of a majority of members that are exclusively in the plant-based category to ensure the integrity of the association’s mission.
To further allow for a broader membership, the fees will be on a sliding scale so that even small startups can easily join and benefit from the collective’s voice, Simon said, adding that the association will help foster the advancement of the total category by helping to mentor startups in the space by sharing wisdom from companies that have been in the sector for longer.
In addition to the five founding board members, the association has 18 other food companies. The association is eager to reach potential new members and spread the word about its launch at a coming out party at Expo West March 12 at 4:30 at Daiya Foods’ booth #4779.