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European protein strategy paves the way for sports foods sector growth

By Luca Bucchini, Chair of ESSNA

- Last updated on GMT

© artJazz | Getty images
© artJazz | Getty images

Related tags Sports nutrition Regulation Protein

Alternative proteins are a fast-growing market within the sports and active nutrition sector. With rising consumer demand for meat alternatives, we see more and more sports foods businesses investing in plant-based products and food-technology alternatives to animal protein.

In this article, Luca Bucchini, Chair of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA​), the European trade body for sports and active nutrition, provides the latest policy developments on alternative proteins in the EU and discusses challenges and opportunities for the industry.

Last month, I travelled to Rennes to join NutrEvent, a European trade event focused on food supplements and innovative ingredients, where I had the pleasure to moderate a timely panel discussion on "Latest innovations and future growth segments in alternative sources of proteins”. As part of my presentation, I explained that the sports and active nutrition industry is increasingly embracing alternative proteins. For instance, alternative proteins are a big part of the ESSNA’s Sustainability Pledge​, the initiative that we introduced​ last year to accelerate the industry’s transition to sustainability.

In parallel with the industry’s increased focus on alternative proteins, decision makers are showing growing interest in promoting the use of these ingredients, as part of EU’s efforts to make the food system healthier and more sustainable and improve food security. In this context, we’ve seen a number of policy developments affecting the industry, the most recent being the European Parliament’s vote​ on the European Protein Strategy on 19th​ October. Here’s what sports foods businesses should know.

Alternative proteins high on EU Member States’ agendas

Over the last year or so, EU member states have pressed the European Commission to implement a protein strategy for the Union, focusing on increasing the production and use of alternative proteins to manage the environmental impact of Europeans' diets, foster intra-EU economic growth and innovation, and address food security challenges.

In March 2022, the Versailles Declaration​ that followed the Informal Meeting of the Heads of State or Government, stated the need to improve EU’s food security by reducing dependencies on key imported agricultural products and inputs, in particular, by increasing the EU production of plant-based proteins. The Declaration urged the Commission to present options to address the rising food prices and the issue of global food security accordingly.

Meanwhile, Austria, with the overwhelming support of 19 Member States, called upon the Commission to develop a common European approach to enhance the potential of plant-based proteins in the EU. Member States stressed that such a European protein strategy should strengthen the sustainable domestic production of plant-based proteins, expand regional processing capacities, and promote the cultivation and use of domestic plant proteins in the food and feed industry.

More recently, the Parliament’s resolution on the European Protein Strategy, called on the Commission to put forward a series of policy actions on this front, with many of them being highly relevant to sports foods companies using alternative proteins.

Novel foods

As innovation on alternative proteins is continuing to progress at full speed in the sports and active nutrition industry, it’s crucial for businesses in the sector to have a clear understanding of the EU Novel Foods Regulation and stay on top of relevant policy developments. While over the last few years we’ve seen the Commission approving a number of alternative protein applications, such as the recent authorisation​ of mung bean protein as a novel food, the main challenge for the industry remains that the application process is complex and this costs significant time and money.    

The Parliament’s vote on the European Protein Strategy is a positive step towards addressing this problem. The Parliament has asked the Commission to improve the current administrative guidance on novel food applications by introducing a scientific and technical guidance document to provide clarifications on the authorisation process. Also, businesses involved in cell-based food production should know that the Parliament’s report stressed that the Novel Food Regulation is not appropriate for the sector.

New genomic techniques

Utilising new genomic techniques (NGTs) to introduce innovative products in the market is essential for sports foods businesses investing in alternative proteins. But what is the current regulatory landscape on this front and how does the Parliament’s vote affect it?

The resolution includes a policy action for the Commission to introduce a “regulation on new genomic techniques that allows new breeding techniques to be adopted, without increasing dominant market positions and taking into account the specific need for innovation by European SMEs”. This is a positive development in addressing current regulatory obstacles and establishing appropriate legislation to facilitate the alternative protein sector’s growth.

According to a decision by the EU Court of Justice in 2018, products of new genomic techniques are classified as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the EU legislation on GMOs should apply to these products. As with the Novel Foods Regulation, the regulatory framework of GMOs makes the use of NGTs and their approval costly and time-consuming. What’s more, as NGT’s did not yet exist when the EU regulation on GMOs was introduced, this legislation does not take into account the latest scientific and technological developments and as a result, it hinders innovation.

Following a public consultation​ last year, the Commission’s published​ its long-awaited proposal on NGTs in July 2023, aiming to loosen the rules in this area. The Commission suggested that NGT plants that meet specific criteria set in the regulatory proposal should be exempted from the GMO legislation and be regulated as conventional plants.

Sustainability

The Parliament’s resolution also calls on the Commission to support the industry’s transition to sustainability via a number of policy actions. Among others, the Parliament urges the Commission to introduce incentives for the production and use of sustainable proteins, providing financial support to the industry via relevant funding programmes such as Horizon Europe. Also, in the context of the regulatory framework for sustainable food systems, the Parliament suggests voluntary food labelling on environmental footprint.

European Commission to review its protein policy

In terms of upcoming policy developments, the Commission is expected to review its protein policy by the first quarter of 2024. This means that the industry has a great opportunity to work closely with policymakers to put forward its interests and secure fit for purpose legislation.

Sports foods businesses interested in influencing the regulatory framework of proteins as well as staying up to date on policy developments affecting the sector can get in touch with ESSNA via info@essna.com

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