This post has been updated.
Walk into a supermarket and nearly any food you pick up has at least one trade association behind it, lobbying for its cause in Washington, singing its praises to the media, or maybe even getting it into that prime spot on the store shelf.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a behemoth representing more than 300 companies, fights mandatory GMO labeling; groups like the North American Meat Institute have spent decades strong-arming the government into maximizing meat’s place in the American diet; the National Pork Producers Council just successfully worked with the US government to get South Africa to accept American pork. There’s even an Association for Dressings and Sauces, which petitions the US Food and Drug Administration about required egg-storage temperatures. And it’s not just animal-based products: the Calorie Control Council, for example, takes on scientists who have linked artificial sweeteners to problems like weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
And now, with the launch today (March 7) of the Plant Based Foods Association, a new collective voice is set to join the fray. Organized by its executive director, food and public health attorney Michele Simon, the group’s goals will be similar to those of its animal-based counterparts: public education, media outreach, and lobbying—only in this case it will seek to change the policies that put eggs, meat, and dairy front and center.
“The deck is stacked against plant-based foods because they cost more and people can’t find them,” Simon told Quartz. The new association, she says, is aimed at “leveling the playing field.” To do that, the organization will educate retailers and foodservice companies about these products, Simon says, and it has hired Elizabeth Kucinich, who previously served as policy director at the Center for Food Safety and as director of government affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, to represent the group in Washington as its policy and partnerships consultant. (Kucinich is the wife of ex-congressman and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, and she helped form the Congressional Vegetarian Staff Association.)
The Plant Based Foods Association launched with 23 company members, including old timers like Tofurky, vegan favorites like Daiya Foods, and relative newcomers like Louisville Vegan Jerky Company. While some well known vegan companies, including Hampton Creek, whose egg-free Just Mayo spread has helped whip up attention to plant-based food startups, are not on today’s list, Simon tells Quartz that recruitment is still ongoing. “As excitement grows,” she says, “we expect many more companies to join.” (Quartz has reached out to Hampton Creek for a comment and will update this post as warranted.)
Many of the group’s charter members had joined Simon last May in an effort to sway the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to eat less meat and more plant-based foods. But the final version didn’t include the committee report’s assessment that healthy diets include less red and processed meat, except in a little-noticed directive for men to eat less protein, buried far into the giant document. Still, Simon sees the results of that effort as mostly positive, saying the companies were happy to be a collective voice in a national conversation. ”Longer term of course, they hope to actually influence the policy outcome in a more tangible way.”
They’re also likely to influence each other, despite technically being competitors. “We see a role for a company like ours to help mentor some of the really interesting and enthusiastic entrepreneurs that are coming into our space now,” Jaime Athos, president and CEO of Tofurky, and the inaugural president of the trade group’s board, told Quartz. “We’re all on the same mission here.”
That mission is catching on—as more consumers see health, environmental and ethical upsides to eating less meat, growth in sales of plant-based protein products are outpacing the rest of the food industry: they are up 8.7% in the last two years compared to the industry’s 3.7%, according to SPINS, which tracks retailer sales.
Alan S. Nemeth, executive director of The Vegan Trade Council, welcomed the group. “The animal-based industries all have multiple trade associations and now it’s a good sign that the vegan industry has multiple trade associations,” he told Quartz.
But, as both Simon and Athos stress, this isn’t just an organization for vegan companies. ”Diversity and inclusion” are listed among the group’s core values, and Simon tells Quartz that there is “no litmus test” for joining. “We already have member companies that aren’t exclusively plant-based,” she says, adding that she’d love to get members from the ranks of Big Food. “We need all hands on deck and all potential partnerships.”
This post was updated with a quote from Alan S. Nemeth, executive director of the Vegan Trade Council.