Regulatory Webinar Addresses Pain Points for China’s Plant-based Food Industry

It’s no secret that plant-based meat products have been on the rise in the international and China markets, bringing unprecedented connectivity to the entire agri-food industry chain. But everyone knows that in order to develop well, it is imperative to establish a good regulatory framework and healthy industry standards. With this in mind, the US-China Agricultural Food Partnership Program (AFP) and the China Institute of Food Science and Technology (CIFST) held an online workshop on 24 March 2021 on the regulation of plant-based meat products and group standards.

This conference, the first of its kind, brought together regulators from relevant Chinese government departments, technical experts, academics, and regulatory experts from the international plant-based food industry, domestic and international plant-based meat product brand owners, suppliers, retailers and other stakeholders. The webinar focused on best practices as well as the need for regulations and global standards for the plant-based food industry and how these regulations can be adapted to the Chinese context. It provided an excellent platform for stakeholders in the plant-based food industry to communicate with each other and to understand each other’s needs and industry pain points, thus laying a good foundation for further consensus, healthy development and eventual industry autonomy.

The meeting kicked off with introductions by Jennifer Lee, Executive Director of the US-China Agricultural Food Partnership Program and vetern of international agri-food collaboration and Chen Zheng, Deputy Secretary-General of the prestigious China Institute of Food Science and Technology.

Then Professor Jiang Lianzhou from the Northeast Agricultural University presented the current situation and trends of plant-based meat products in the China and international markets. He defined what plant-based foods are from a technical point of view and compared the advantages of plant-based protein products over animal protein products. He also presented the trend of replacing some animal meat products with plant-based food products in the international and China agri-food markets, taking into account China’s long culinary tradition, the country’s agricultural structure, and the predictable agricultural outlook and food demands. Professor Jiang also elaborated on several key scientific and technical indicators for plant-based meat products, including protein constitutive mechanisms and functional regulation, how protein structure is reorganised, protein flexibility processing, how flavor is regulated, and the overall safety evaluation of plant-based foods. Finally, Professor Jiang explained the industrialization challenges facing plant-based foods, including the lack of product functionality (not close enough to animal meat), the serious homogenisation of products, and the lack of evaluation methods and standards for plant-based foods.

Following Professor Jiang was Wilfred Feng of Denton’s Law Firm. Mr. Feng shared his views on the regulatory and standards issues facing the plant-based food industry in China from the perspective of industry regulation. He argues that first, in order to regulate and set standards for the emerging plant-based food industry, it is necessary for the industry as a whole to reach a maximum consensus on some key issues and to clearly define the direction of solutions. Secondly, all stakeholders in the industry need to seek common ground while preserving differences. Furthermore, three issues need to be considered: the needs of consumers, the voice of the industry, and scientific feasibility.

Afterward, Maggie Zhan, Senior Manager of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at Nestlé shared her from her expertise. She explained that the development of plant-based food is the prevailing trend, and the market scale in the future will be considerable, but the corresponding regulations are still lacking and the progress of regulations is not compatible with the market development. In early 2021, ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and BSI (British Standards Institution) published two international standards for 100% plant-based products, ISO 23662 and PAS 224 respectively.  These two standards provide a reference for innovation in the plant-based food industry globally and provide an opportunity for regulatory research in countries around the world. They include details on nomenclature including the differences between “plant-based” and “vegetarian”, which are

  1. “Purely vegetarian” (vegan) does not allow any ingredients or additives of animal origin.
  2. “Vegan” (vegetarian) does not allow slaughtered animals, but may allow eggs or milk.
  3. “100% plant-based” is made from plants (plants include algae, fungi, yeasts, micro-organisms and genetically modified organisms). Animal ingredients are not allowed, and these products may contain water, minerals and salt.

Although “vegetarian” is not the same as “plant-based”, products that meet the criteria for “vegan” can be claimed to be “100% plant-based” on request. The term “vegan” is not the same as “plant-based”. In addition, terms such as plant-based and plant protein can reveal the source and composition of a product. This nomenclature has been accepted by regulators and most consumers.

Following Ms. Zhan was Mon-Hsi (Arnold) Hsu VP of Quality Assurance of OSI Group Asia Pacific, a leading producer and supplier of plant-based protein products in the international market. Mr. Hsu said that only through corporate compliance, industry self-regulation and directional guidance from regulators can the industry be regulated and further developed in a sustainable, high quality manner.

He also suggested that, given the diversity of companies in the industry, with different characteristics and developmental directions, he hoped that regulators could leave ample room for the development of the industry as a whole, with an eye on the future. Mr. Hsu used the case of OSI Group, which produces and supplies plant protein beef patties in the United States, as a case study to demonstrate to participants the regulatory practices in plant-based food products in the United States and how companies can seek to grow in the existing regulatory environment.

Zhang Xinliang, Founder & Chairman of the Board, Ningbo Sulian Food Co., which is a representative manufacturer and brand owner that covers the entire supply chain of plant-based food in China, spoke next. Mr. Zhang has a deep understanding of the challenges encountered in the current regulatory environment in the China plant-based food market. Mr. Zhang made five key points regarding the need for a group standard for plant-based protein products in China.

  1. Definition. Plant-based products are fundamentally different from blended protein and soy-based products, with completely different process characteristics and supply chain management, and need to be defined differently.
  2. Classification. Plant-based protein products are currently classified as “other soya products” in the regulations, and it is hoped that the regulatory authorities will classify them as a separate category.
  3. Use of additives. From a production point of view, companies should distinguish between plant-based products with and without animal-derived ingredients, as the technology and consumer experience are different, and therefore should be differentiated in terms of classification and nomenclature.
  4. A more complete sub-category. The current standard divides products into raw and cooked products, but there is a wide range of plant-based protein products and a more complete framework of categories is needed.
  5. It is hoped that the industry standard can collect more applications of additives and ingredients from a wide range of companies and manufacturers, so that all new additives and ingredients can be included in the specification, which in turn promotes the development of the industry.

After Mr. Zhang, Professor Guo Shuntang, of China Agricultural University introduced the Plant-based Meat Products Group Standard formulated by CIFST. Professor Guo is the key expert on the CIFST’s Group Standard for Plant-based Protein Products. He gave participants a detailed introduction to the source, development and overall structure of the group standard. He also elaborated on the content of the group standard and the technical issues to be addressed, as well as the significance that the group standard can bring to the industry, and the challenges that may be faced in its future application.

Professor Guo firstly introduced the original intention of CIFST to develop this group standard for plant-based protein products, and how the process of making it was not only reviewed and discussed by various experts, but also took into account the needs of the industry. Professor Guo said the technical issues to be addressed by the group standard, including the scope of application, were the definition and classification of plant-based meat products, the definition of group batches, nomenclature and claims on the origin of ingredients, and the basic requirements for plant-based products in terms of physical and chemical indicators. Finally, Professor Guo discussed the following implications and challenges that the group standard will bring to the industry. He believes that the development of the standard has clarified some basic concepts of the plant-based industry and is conducive to the standardisation of the industry. The definition of categories and the clarification of classifications in the standard will help to differentiate plant-based products from soya products and vegetarian products, which will be beneficial to consumers’ perception. The next challenge for the industry should be to strive to improve taste and flavor, lower prices and enhance processes to provide a new healthy food category for the general consumer.

This presentation was following by a roundtable discussion among all participants on the Regulation and Group Standards of Plant-based Meat Products, moderated by Dr. Yan Zhinong, Chairperson for AFP China, Executive Director of Walmart Food Safety.

The discussion focused on the current regulatory issues that the industry needs to address, including the key pain point of industry group standards. Key issues discussed were the application of production licenses, the use of additives, the use of genetically modified products and their processes in plants and products, the application of wet extrusion technology, and the applicability of hemoglobin in the Chinese market. Prof. Guo from China Agricultural University, Prof. Jiang from Northeast Agricultural University, Mr. Feng from Denton’s Law Firm, and representatives from International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), OSI Group and Intertek Group presented their respective positions and insights on technology, regulations, production, use of ingredients and industry policies.

In sum, this workshop on regulations and standards for plant-based food was the first of its kind in the Chinese plant-based meat industry. Participants were representative of the industry, including regulators, academics, industry technical experts, upstream and downstream manufacturers, brand owners, ingredient suppliers, and third-party service providers (e.g. law firms, consultancies). The conference provided a platform for stakeholders in the plant-based food industry to communicate with each other and to understand each other’s needs and industry pain points.

As a result of the conference, the following regulatory and standards issues have received the most attention in the industry and have been determined to be in most urgent need of maximum consensus in China: nomenclature, classification, use of additives and other ingredients, use of new additives, labelling, nutrition and safety, etc.

Additionally, the discussion allowed participants to identify how specific pain points could be addressed through a Group Standard.

The next step for the China plant-based food industry is to undertake further coordination on the above-mentioned key issues of regulations and industry standards, and to introduce more advanced best practice cases from overseas to unite regulators and industry stakeholders to tackle each issue, so as to lay a solid foundation for the industry to reach further consensus, promoting healthy development of the industry and gradually achieving the self-governance of the industry.


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