Ready or not, you can’t hide — 2022 is here, and it’s gonna find you.
While we can’t prepare for the unexpected, we have a pretty good idea what food industry trends might show up or continue this year.
Sam Jockel and Ben Wolf, attorneys from Alston & Bird law firm’s food, beverage and agribusiness and FDA/food, drug and device teams, share some insight into which trends to keep an eye on and how best to prepare.
Consumer demands for healthier, sustainable foods will keep growing. As everyone became hyperaware of their health during the pandemic, consumers’ concern for what is in their food and how it’s being made has grown, but the trend has been around longer than COVID-19.
In particular, the interest in plant-based food products, including meat substitutes and alternatives, keeps climbing. Jockel said manufacturers have already been responding to what he calls “an explosion of interest” by developing new products.
But, he also said that manufacturers need to understand the labeling restrictions.
“There’s a patchwork of state labeling restrictions on terms such as ‘meat,’ ‘milk’ or ‘burger’ on plant-based food products,” Jockel said, “so manufacturers should aim to understand what the regulatory and litigation landscape is surrounding them.”
When it comes to labeling a product as “healthy,” Jockel expects the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a proposed rule revising the definition of the word sometime in the foreseeable future.
“This is an example of a potential regulatory labeling change that will impact product development should the definition change,” he said.
More attention will be paid to contaminants such as PFAS. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are permitted in a number of food contact applications, but that doesn’t mean that consumers will be any less interested in when and where they’re being used.
“Our advice is just to continue monitoring the regulatory environment and consumers as well,” he said. “Consumer interest has pushed food packaging manufacturers to voluntarily phase out short-chain PFAS as well as bisphenol a (BPA).”
Wolf also said we could see potentially tighter restrictions on PFAS use.
“Manufacturers should potentially consider how they’re going to move away from the use of PFAS should there be tighter restriction or removal of authorization of use in certain applications.”
There could be more attention on heavy metals in baby food. In February 2021, a report from the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy showed that baby foods had dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals. Two months later, FDA released its Closer to Zero action plan, saying it would propose guidance on allowable levels of various heavy metals, the first of which comes up later this year.
Jockel sees this issue as an example of state governments, consumers and more pushing FDA into further action. There’s also the Baby Food Safety Act moving through Congress that would require FDA and manufacturers to take action by setting maximum allowable levels of the toxic heavy metals.
“I don’t necessarily see regulatory action by FDA, but potentially some guidance on the levels that it thinks would be considered to adulterate particular food,” he said.
COVID-19 will continue to impact the food industry. Both Wolf and Jockel think 2022 will see continued issues relating to the pandemic. Wolf said the supply chain will continue to be a concern, resulting in shipping, packaging and incoming ingredient issues.
“Especially with Omicron and other potential future variants,” Wolf said.
Wolf also expects to see continued relaxation by FDA on on-site audits for certain manufacturers or international suppliers.
Jockel, for his part, sees increased costs as a result of the pandemic and inflation being a cause for concern.
“We’re seeing increased transportation costs; we’re seeing significantly increased prices of particular ingredients, raw materials and packaging materials,” Jockel said.
At the same time, food manufacturers still need to meet the same regulatory requirements. There has been some flexibility from FDA on items such as making minor formulation changes in certain products without having to change an existing label.
“On the other hand, if you are sourcing from a completely new ingredient supplier, you still have to ensure that you’re evaluating that ingredient as part of your food safety plan,” Jockel said.
Along the lines of consumers wanting more sustainable foods, cell-cultured meat will continue to see investment. A number of traditional meat companies invested in cell-cultured meat in 2021. For example, JBS acquired BioTech Foods, a Spanish company that develops cultivated protein, and announced that it was going to build a new research and development center in Brazil.
Jockel thinks more traditional meat companies will look to invest in similar ways.
“They have some of the infrastructure in place. It’s not easy to start up a new food company,” he said.
The generally recognized as safe (GRAS) process will continue to be the most widely used pathway to market for new food ingredients. The decision in Center for Food Safety v. Becerra reaffirmed the FDA’s GRAS process as viable means to bring new ingredients to market, Jockel said.
The pathway affirmed in the decision lets companies determine on their own that a new ingredient is generally recognized as safe using FDA’s procedures and requirements without having to send the details to FDA.
“This will continue to be the most used pathway,” Jockel said, noting that the pathway of sending FDA a Food Additive Petition isn’t as widely used. “But when you come to your own conclusion, that needs to be robust. If the FDA ever challenges the basis by which you market a new novel ingredient, it will come and ask for that documentation.”