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An Interview With Michele Simon, Executive Director of PBFA

For decades, the meat and dairy industries have successfully lobbied the fields of food politics. They have influenced the official advice from the U.S. government on what the American people should eat and which foods are served in government-funded meals.  Despite clear scientific evidence that eating less meat and more plants is “health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet,” government programs such as the Dietary Guidelines don’t reflect this important information.

Michele Simon, food-policy lawyer and executive director of the recently formed Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), wants to change that. “The time has come for the plant-based food industry to also have a collective voice,” said the food-politics revolutionary in a press release earlier this year.

Fruits and vegetables. (Photo Credit: O'Leary's / Flickr)

Fruits and vegetables. (Photo Credit: O’Leary’s / Flickr)

According to Simon, “the animal agriculture industry enjoys a lot of advantages economically and politically,” and the PBFA will fight to “level the playing field.” When it officially launched on March 12, at Expo West in Anaheim California, the plant-based trade group had 23 member companies, including Daiya Foods, Tofurky Company and Upton’s Naturals, and more companies have signed up since. 

Manipulating official government food and nutrition policy isn’t cheap. In 2015, the meat industry spent roughly $4.7 million lobbying to support meat products and processing. How much does something like the Dietary Guidelines cost? According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 71 Republican party representatives and 30 Senators, who outwardly supported removing the recommendation to reduce meat consumption in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, received over $3 million from food-related businesses in 2013 and 2014, with approximately half a million coming from the beef and cattle industries.

Beef short rib sloppy joe. (Photo Credit: Jessica Rossi / Flickr)

Beef short rib sloppy joe. (Photo Credit: Jessica Rossi / Flickr)

Despite blossoming demand for plant-based foods, which grew by nearly nine percent since 2014, there has been very little invested in throwing tomatoes back at the manure coming from the animal agriculture lobby. The PBFA is on the warpath to lobby for healthy sustainable plant-based food – and with annual sales in the sector reaching roughly $3.5 billion last year (excluding Whole Foods), they are prepared for the food fight.

I got the opportunity to ask Michele Simon about the challenges and opportunities that her group of eco-warriors are facing and their strategy going forward. Here’s what we talked about:

Planet Experts: Nutrition science can be complicated and consumers have been conditioned to seek animal-based products via programs such as Got Milk and the Food Pyramid. How will the PBFA reverse these accepted beliefs and address the potential confusion from consumers about what to eat?

Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant Based Food Association. (Photo courtesy of PBFA)

Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant Based Food Association. (Photo courtesy of PBFA)

Michele Simon: More solid information is coming out all the time about the need to shift to a plant-based diet and that message is getting through to consumers, as evidenced by their changing buying habits. Our audience is mostly the business community (retailers and foodservice), policymakers and the media. In other words, people in a position to help change policies and business practices to advance plant-based foods. Once we can change the environment to make plant-based eating more easily accessible, then it becomes the norm.

PE: What is the best way to communicate the health and environmental benefits of plant-based food to consumers? Does awareness about these issues have a significant influence on behavioral change?

MS: Information is always important, but even more important is creating more opportunities for consumers to purchase and enjoy plant-based foods. Once we can convince people how delicious these foods are, the social reasons are less important – they are just a nice side benefit. Let’s face it, most folks won’t eat what doesn’t taste good!

PE: What is the PBFA’s strategy for taking on the labeling restrictions that limit plant-based food companies from using words like “cheese” in their marketing strategies?

MS: We are taking a careful approach. I will be talking with members, considering consumer surveys, ensuring we come up with the best solutions possible before approaching regulators.

PE: Is the PBFA seeking partnerships with companies that have historically promoted meat and dairy but may be open to shifting their focus? If so, how?

MS: Our membership is open to any company that either makes or sells plant-based foods. That means even if Wendy’s, which recently started selling a black bean burger, wants to join, we are happy to have them. If we can help them shift even further, it’s win-win. That’s how we are going to grow the plant-based foods movement, by working together.

Wendy's Black Bean Burger.

Wendy’s Black Bean Burger.

PE: What are the biggest opportunities and challenges associated with increasing the widespread adoption of plant-based food products? How is the PBFA addressing both?

MS: So many opportunities for growth! We are planning to conduct outreach to retailers to start and go from there. The challenges are mostly policy-related: that the meat, egg and dairy industries have enjoyed so many economic advantages for decades and it’s hard for plant-based foods to compete. We will be working to address this with policymakers.

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