The future of food – the challenges of putting alternative protein sources on the UK market
Published on 18th Jan 2023
As consumer demand for alternative proteins grows, companies launching new foods need to be aware of the developing regulatory position
What are alternative proteins?
For many people in the UK and EU, the protein part of a meal brings to mind a plate full of meat, fish or eggs. However, a combination of environmental, ethical and health reasons are driving consumers to look for alternatives – but not necessarily by eating traditional meat substitutes.
Instead, consumers are looking for a new experience: potentially one that is more like eating meat. New products are starting to emerge to meet this demand, such as products made with protein from seaweed and insects. The technology behind lab-grown meat is also advancing rapidly and novel forms of fermentation and other technologies that closely mimic the taste of meat are developing fast. Many of these products are expected to be ready to go to market in the next few years – which raises a number of interesting legal issues for companies.
Is novel foods authorisation needed?
Novel foods are foods which have not been widely consumed by people in the UK or EU before the 15 May 1997.
In practice novel foods are either newly developed types of food such as new types of fermentation or lab-grown meats or food which has been traditionally eaten outside of the UK or EU, such as many insects or types of seaweed. As a consequence, many new types of alternative protein qualify as novel foods.
If a company wants to launch a new food item on the market that does not have a history of consumption then it will need to apply for authorisation before it can be sold to consumers. This is a lengthy and time-consuming process therefore it is worth seeking legal advice to decide if authorisation is needed before embarking on an application.
Are there additional food safety considerations?
New processes and products raise potential food safety and allergen risks which will need to be fully explored and addressed as part of the business's food safety review (using Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point principles).
In addition, if novel food approval is required, identifying safety risks is a critical part of the process and detailed information about the allergenicity and toxicology of the food must be provided in the application.
How to protect intellectual property
Innovative technology (including biomass fermentation and molecular farming) and new products (such as lab-grown meat) may be patentable or, alternatively, could be protected by maintaining the confidentiality of the innovations as a "trade secret".
Companies will need technical and legal expertise to protect their products using patents and know-how rights and navigate the rights of third parties. Companies also need to consider wider strategic IP issues, such as how to structure IP “ownership” within the business and group and protecting their brand through trade mark protection and enforcement.
Advertising claims must not be misleading and there must be data to substantiate any claims. This is particularly tricky when existing practices and definitions have not caught up with development of new products like alternative proteins. Therefore it will be necessary to give careful legal review before using terms such as "vegetarian", "green" and "plant-based" to make sure consumers are fully informed.
Osborne Clarke comment
It is an exciting time to be launching alternative protein products on the market in the UK and Europe. These products promise to bring great innovation to the food market and will likely do well. A great deal of preparation is needed for a successful launch which should involve obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals, comprehensive safety assessments and ensuring IP is protected.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this Insight, please get in touch with one of our experts below.
This Insight was produced with the assistance of Hannah Edwards, Trainee Solicitor.