Congressman Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s second district, recently jumped into a growing controversy when he joined colleagues in the House of Representatives in signing a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking that it ban vegan foods from using seafood terms on their packaging.

The letter is part of a wider campaign championed by ranchers, dairy farmers and now fishermen to respond to the rising market threat posed by plant-based alternatives. Until now, plant-based milks and meat have been the primary targets. The letter Golden signed marks the first effort to limit the use of traditional seafood words on vegan products.

The letter, dated April 22, calls on the FDA “to enforce its labeling requirements to protect public health and avoid consumer deception” by “products that are labeled ‘fishless fish.’ ” The FDA has not responded to the letter, said Golden’s communications director, Nick Zeller.

Rep. Jared Golden signed a letter to the FDA this spring that would forbid companies that produce vegan seafood from labeling it as fish.  Staff photo by Joe Phelan

In a newsletter Golden sent May 3 to constituents, he wrote “I’m concerned that ‘fishless fish’ and other products deceive consumers at the expense of good jobs in our state’s fishing industry.” He also expressed concern about the labeling of plant-based milks and meats, and asked his constituents to take a poll that asked a single question: “Do you think companies that make meat-less, fish-less or dairy-free products should be allowed to label their products as meat, fish, or milk?”

According to Zeller, 364 people filled out the survey and 84 percent answered that they don’t want the word “fish” on vegan foods.

Zeller said keeping seafood terms off vegan foods “helps consumers make more informed decisions about what they are eating and helps Maine fishermen and lobstermen compete on a level playing field.” Asked if Golden thinks consumers are being tricked into buying vegan seafood, Zeller didn’t respond.

According to the Department of Marine Resources, Maine’s fishing industry generated $637 million in 2018. No companies in Maine make plant-based seafood, although the state’s seaweed and algae industries provide key ingredients for many of the vegan fish products on the market.

Some stores in Maine carry vegan seafood, as do some restaurants. Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland’s Old Port, for one, offers Vegan Crab Cakes, described on the menu as “crispy wheat & soy ‘crab’ cakes on a bed of local Ocean Approved Kelp Salad with Old Bay vegan aioli.”

Novare Res co-owner Shahin Alireza Khojastehzad said the vegan crab cakes are popular, and he thinks using the word “vegan” to modify “crab cakes” is the most accurate way to describe them. “From the bar’s standpoint, what would we call it?” Khojastehzad said. “A seafood-flavored cake? I’d prefer to keep it the way it is.”

But Golden’s effort to restrict the labeling of vegan seafood also has supporters in Maine, including the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington. Carla Guenther, the nonprofit’s chief scientist, said in a written statement that, “As we work to sustain our fisheries and educate consumers about the importance of quality sustainable seafood in a healthy diet, it’s unfortunate that the labeling of these types of products in this way may cause even more confusion for consumers.”

The Plant Based Food Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade association, opposes any move to ban words on vegan food labels and disputes the notion that consumers are confused.

“The effort to restrict the labeling of plant-based seafood alternatives is an unwarranted attack on plant-based foods, and their free-market and free-speech right to use common and usual terms that consumers understand,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the group. “There is no consumer confusion, and there is room in the marketplace for everyone.”

In their letter to the FDA, Golden and the other lawmakers note that “in 2018, the Monterey Bay Aquarium partnered with a startup food company — New Wave Foods — to serve vegan ‘shrimp’ at its cafe, claiming that it is the ‘most sustainable seafood option on its Sustainable Catch Menu.’ ”

Maine’s animal advocacy community has taken little notice of the letter, but Melissa Gates, who heads Animal Rights Maine, called it an “effort to marginalize the sale of processed plant-based foods” and “perpetuate the federally subsidized animal- and fish-based diets.”

Golden is not the first member of Maine’s congressional delegation to wade into the vegan labeling debate. Senator Angus King co-sponsored the Dairy Pride Act, which seeks to stop plant-based dairy products from using “milk” or “cheese” on their labels. The legislation was assigned to the Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee, where it has languished.

King first endorsed the legislation in 2017 and reaffirmed his support earlier this year. In an article last summer, Smithsonian Magazine noted that the proposed legislation has left “nutritionists, food historians and even lexicographers scratching their heads.” It recounted almond milk’s popularity in European medieval cookbooks and soy milk’s roots in 14th-century China.

An article in February in Vice magazine traced today’s plant-based meats back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty when vegetarian Buddhist monks created a culinary tradition of plant-based meats and seafood. A recent analysis by Linkage Research & Consulting of the almost 12,000 comments submitted to the FDA about the Dairy Pride Act found that 76 percent supported allowing vegan foods to use dairy terms, while 13 percent want dairy terms banned from vegan foods and 10 percent didn’t express an opinion either way. Among commenters who described themselves as dairy farmers, 99.8 percent oppose using dairy terms on vegan foods.

I asked Matthew Felling, communications director for Sen. Angus King, if the senator has a position on the labeling of vegan seafood. Felling said “the economic threat posed by plant-based fish alternatives hasn’t reached the level where we need to seek a legislative remedy” and said King is more concerned about “seafood labeling fraud,” which includes illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

In 2018, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop vegan companies from labeling their products “meat,” and Missouri became the first state to prohibit companies from calling vegetarian products “sausage” or “hamburger.” In response to the Missouri law, the makers of vegan meat brand Tofurky, along with the Good Food Institute, Animal Legal Defense and American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed suit on First Amendment grounds, which has prevented the ban from being enforced.

This year Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma and South Carolina adopted similar legislation to prohibit the labeling of plant-based products as “meat.” None of the bans has gone into effect.

Between 2013 and 2015, the egg industry under the auspice of the American Egg Board launched a secret campaign against a vegan mayonnaise maker. The effort convinced the FDA to scrutinize the vegan product’s labeling, which was eventually allowed to stand with some minor adjustments. When the smear campaign came to light, it led to a USDA investigation, ethics training for egg board members and loads of free publicity for vegan mayonnaise. Since then, many makers of egg-based mayonnaise have added vegan mayo to their product lineups.

Evidence of consumers deceived by plant-based products remains scant. At the same time, there is ample evidence that plant-based seafood advertising often positions the vegan product as a better choice, referring to such problems with the seafood industry as overfishing and mercury contamination. An advertisement for Good Catch fish-free “tuna” proclaims, for instance, “It’s seafood – without the sacrifice.” It’s a tactic that has caught the attention of consumers, fishermen and now members of Congress.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 


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