With a massive population and religious culture rooted in vegetarianism, India’s alternative protein industry has been developing at unprecedented speeds. At the same time, we have seen the local government grant funding to promote the research and development of cellular agriculture and introduce some regulatory changes that may indirectly impact alternative proteins.
At present, India has not formulated a food standard or new regulation for the food category of alternative protein products. However, we continue to see a trend where local authorities carry out strict labeling rules for the use of dairy terms in India. Specifically, the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 20111 explicitly prohibit the use of any dairy terms for a food that is not milk or a milk product. That being said, the nomenclature of certain products, e.g., coconut milk, despite referring to the term “milk,” remains permissible given the well-established perception by consumers of certain non-milk products. In late 2021, however, India ordered an investigation2 into the alleged use of dairy terms on the labels of plant-based beverages and food products, mostly being sold through e-commerce channels. The authority expressed concern that the use of such terms may mislead consumers. However, because India has not yet developed any guidance on the labeling of alternative proteins, e.g., plant-based meats, cell-based foods, and algal protein, the industry remains unclear about the appropriate nomenclature to use for alternative protein products. It remains to be seen whether India will allow for certain qualifiers, such as “plant-based,” “cell-based,” etc., to describe these products, similar to what has been permitted by some countries in other parts of the world.
Oftentimes, vegan and alternative protein foods have overlapping aspects, so it is important to monitor the developments of vegan foods, as it may shed some light on what we can expect the authority to do in the alternative proteins space. For example, in September of 2021, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) published a draft standard for vegan foods3, under which vegan foods are newly defined as foods or food ingredients that have not made use of any ingredients, additives, and processing aids of animal origin (e.g., dairy products, fish, eggs). A major element of the draft was the creation of a new vegan logo specifically for vegan foods, and all vegan foods shall carry the logo on their package after the endorsement from the food authority upon application. The draft, once finalized, may also apply to plant-based alternative protein marketing in India, but this remains to be seen.
While, again, there is not yet a regulatory pathway to clear new alternative proteins in India, such foods are likely to be regulated as “novel food” under the Food Safety and Standards (Health Supplements, Nutraceuticals, Food for Special Dietary Use, Food for Special Medical Purpose, Functional Food and Novel Food) Regulations, 2016,4 either because of no history of human consumption or because it may involve the use of new technologies. Novel foods are not allowed to be manufactured or sold in India without firstly being evaluated and approved by FSSAI. It should be noted that FSSAI has not established a regulatory pathway to clear food products of genetically modified (GM) origin or containing GM ingredients. However, FSSAI proposed a new draft regulation last year specifically for genetically modified or engineered foods,5 under which procedures for prior approval for the manufacture, storage, distribution, sale, and import of genetically modified food products, detailed testing, and labeling requirements are specified. Enterprises manufacturing GM-derived alternative proteins are encouraged to closely monitor the regulatory updates in this area.