Plant-Based Food Regulation in China
As China starts to emerge and recover from COVID-19, more and more food brands are entering into the plant-based food space. As the plant-based market in China begins to expand, it’s important for anyone entering this space to consider the applicable food regulations that will apply to such foods.
First, one must confirm all plant-based ingredients are lawful to use in food under China’s food laws. Approval from the National Health Commission (NHC) is required if the ingredient is considered “new,” meaning there is no history of consumption by the Chinese population. In addition to the plant-based ingredients, one must not overlook the other ingredients and food additives used in the food, as they should have proper status under the Chinese requirements. For instance, it should be confirmed that the use levels of all food additives in the finished plant-based food comply with any applicable limits set forth in China’s food additive standard.
Second, a product standard for the plant-based ingredient or food should be identified. China’s food regulatory system is based on standards, which detail safety and quality requirements of the food. Thus, identifying a proper product standard is a crucial component of compliance. For instance, when a plant-based food is imported, upon its arrival at port, customs officials will examine the food in accordance with the applicable Chinese standard(s). Accordingly, identifying the correct standard(s) for the product before exporting to China is critical.
Third, one must ensure proper labeling is used to promote the plant-based food. This would include an appropriate product name and other statements or claims that may be put on the package. For example, whether the qualifying terms “artificial,” “imitated,” “plant-based,” and “veggie” may be used, and whether the plant-based food, per se, can refer to the terms “milk,” “sausage,” “burger,” and “egg”, which are traditionally derived from animals. China is currently amending its food labeling standard and regulation. There is now a unique opportunity for industry to make labeling suggestions since one of the proposed provisions specifically addresses product naming of plant-based food. Please find more details of Chinese food labeling in our CRM Alert- Are You Ready for China’s New Food Labeling Requirements? Notably, industry has already taken some steps to propose standards that may be used to guide industry on product naming, technical specifications, etc. For instance, the Chinese Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) issued a notice[iii] on March 18, 2020 to solicit feedback on its plan to draft a Group Standard for Plant Protein Meat Products.
There is no doubt that “plant-based food” is gaining more and more attention among Chinese consumers interested in consuming alternatives to meat or simply wanting to incorporate such foods to their diets. However, its regulatory scheme remains unsettled, e.g., whether the government will create a new food regulatory category for plant-based food giving it a new “identity” or will it keep plant-based food under the existing framework and simply develop additional regulatory requirements. Our Keller and Heckman Shanghai Office is closely monitoring the regulation of plant-based foods in China and we will continue to report on developments in this space.