National Chicken Council wants labeling restrictions on plant-based products

Dive Brief:

  • The National Chicken Council formally asked the FDA and USDA to set labeling guidelines for chicken alternative products. Allowing products that contain no poultry meat to be labeled as “chicken” harms the industry and causes consumer confusion, the NCC wrote in a letter to the government agencies last week.
  • NCC also released results of an online survey that indicated 81% of U.S. consumers want plant-based chicken to be more clearly labeled. According to the results, one in five consumers has mistakenly purchased plant-based chicken, believing it to be the real thing.
  • While traditional producers of dairy and beef have been outspoken about their support for stricter labeling rules for plant-based products, the chicken industry as a whole hasn’t previously spoken out on the issue.

Dive Insight:

To this point, the poultry industry has been relatively silent about plant-based chicken and what it means to its business. The NCC and other poultry groups did not respond to Food Dive last year for a story covering the issue. On its website, the NCC has no other releases or position papers about the plant-based sector. And there hasn’t previously been an industry outcry from chicken companies or groups about unfair labeling of products.

But a lot has changed for plant-based chicken in the past year. The segment has exploded, with bigger players like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods releasing their take on chicken nuggets and tenders. Legacy brands including Gardein and MorningStar Farms have launched products that use different extrusion technology to more closely mimic the texture and moisture of a chicken breast. Companies that use biomass fermentation to produce chicken analogs, like Quorn, have doubled down on creating new and improved products for the U.S. market. And new entrants including Daring and Simulate have posted growth, raised millions for expansion and made a splash in freezer sections nationwide.

The result is that the plant-based chicken sector was the fastest-growing area in meat alternatives last year, according to sales statistics from SPINS, the Plant-Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute. The breakdown of statistics from GFI shows that plant-based chicken made up 22% of all plant-based meat product sales last year, second only to ground beef. And the PBFA’s analysis says sales of plant-based chicken doubled from 2018 to 2021.

As plant-based chicken is more of a market force, it makes sense for chicken producers to try to stake their claim on poultry — and labeling. The NCC, which is the largest trade association for broiler chicken producers, says allowing these products to be labeled as “chicken” is misleading and confusing, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has protocols in place to define products that can be called chicken. 

“A plant-based protein product is no more ‘chicken’ than a grilled chicken breast is a piece of cauliflower,” the NCC’s letter to the FDA and USDA states.

The NCC plans to submit its letter to the FDA and USDA as public comments on a docket about labeling of plant-based alternatives to meat and poultry products. But it’s unclear if anything will come out of it. The federal government has so far been relatively permissive of meat analogs labeling themselves with terms like “burger” or “chicken” — as long as the label also clearly indicates that the products are plant-based or made from another non-meat source.

Even though the NCC has the survey results — which included 1,164 consumers — it may be even more difficult for chicken producers to make the confusion argument. Many chicken analog products intentionally misspell “chicken” in ways such as “chik’n,” “chiqin” or “chick*n.”

Other meat sectors have been more active in this area. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association made preventing “false and deceptive marketing” of “fake meat” one of its 2019 policy priorities, which ushered in several state laws — and court cases that quickly followed — about labeling of plant-based products. No definitive rulings have yet been made on these cases. A federal judge ruled in March that Louisiana’s state law prohibiting meat terminology from being used on products not derived from animal carcasses was unconstitutional, but the state has appealed the ruling.