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The Future of Protein Production Summit Speaker Profile: Mathilde Do Chi, Food Law/Regulatory Affairs Consultant, Vegan Food Law

February 13, 2023

As an international food law consultant, Mathilde Do Chi has worked across the board in the food industry for both the private and public sectors ranging from law and consultancy firms through to governmental research bodies, NGOs, the United Nations and multinationals. Through Vegan Food Law, she combines her passion for veganism by helping companies in the sector launch animal-free food that is better better for the planet, animals and people’s health

Mathilde, thank you for taking some time out to speak with us here The Future of Protein Production. Could you give us a bit of background about yourself and your pathway to where you are today?

I come from a legal background and obtained several degrees related to food, namely an LLM in International Trade & Investment Law, an LLM in Food Law, and a Diploma in Food Psychology. I chose this path as I wanted to gain a broad understanding of the functioning of our global food system and not only the European Union system as I come from a multinational background and have traveled the world extensively.

Despite my studies specifically addressing the topic of food and my numerous jobs in the field, I only became acquainted with the world of alternative proteins back in late 2020 when I took a course from The Good Food Institute tackling the basics of the subject (albeit I have known about plant-based proteins since late 2015). Thus, I took a position as a regulatory specialist in plant-based ingredients at ADM, a Fortune 500 B2B food multinational, in early 2021 where I was eager to apply my knowledge of plant-based protein and discover more about cell ag and fermentation-derived ingredients as ADM was publicly investing in them.

After spending a year and a half working for ADM, I had the opportunity to broaden my skills on plant-based proteins and master the related legal and regulatory challenges at a global scale (EMEAI, North America, LATAM, Middle-East, and APAC) but I was left frustrated because the business did not create projects tackling cell ag and fermentation-derived products from a regulatory standpoint. Consequently, I left the company to create my own consultancy to support companies in navigating the global regulatory landscape since I had taught myself the legal and regulatory bits of alternative proteins and figured out my impact would be greater if I could advise companies directly on a broad range of topics. Some of my clients at ADM were multinationals operating in various countries but surprisingly they shared the very same problems as the startups I had networked with.

Since then (June 2022), I have worked with a plethora of clients ranging from VCs and global intelligence firms to startups and given several talks at alternative protein events.

Ultimately, this course of events pushed me to apply to speak at The Future of Protein Production Summit to share my knowledge and discuss with like-minded professionals on facilitating the widespread adoption and consumption of alternative proteins across the world.

What services can you now offer the alternative proteins industry in your capacity at Vegan Food Law?

I accompany my clients in navigating the complex global regulatory landscape applicable to alternative proteins and help them redesign their marketing strategy if one of their targeted markets happens to be more challenging to penetrate. I combine regulatory guidance with legal advice as most of the terms used by the industry are heavily regulated while some companies may assume these terms can be used freely. For instance, with the recent addition to the dictionary of plant-based terms such as oat milk and plant-based meat, there is a misunderstanding from companies that these terms as part of the common lexicon may be put on products’ packaging.

My added value resides in my ability to tackle a problem from multiple angles as I have worked for both the private and public sectors ranging from small companies to multinationals (law firms, consultancies, United Nations, the French government, the Japanese government, Fortune 500 enterprises).

Moreover, I am also heavily involved in public advocacy as the VP of Regulatory of both the Vegan World Alliance and the Vegan Society of Canada and the Chief Compliance Officer at BeVeg International where I drafted and reviewed the standards for certifying food products.

I offer advice on tackling a broad range of topics (clean labeling, animal testing, sustainability, unfair competition practices, consumer education, marketing strategies, novel foods, alternative proteins and animal welfare). I advise on different legal systems (EU, UK, Switzerland, Canada, US, APAC and the Middle East) which do bear some similarities but mostly distinguish themselves in the way they design their regulatory approval system. The EU has the strictest food system in the world which can deter some companies from even entering its market which is a missed opportunity as once approved products can freely circulate within the 27 EU Member States.

Specializing in alternative proteins was a logical choice as they recoup the same values defended by veganism, eliminating animals from our food supply chain, ensuring sustainability, and better human health by offering people healthier food-stuffs.

Given how closely you work with your clients, you must hear first-hand their major challenges? Is finding partners and collaboration one of those challenges?

Of the broader challenges, they pertain mainly to an increasingly complex and unreliable supply chain that has been disrupted by droughts, logistics, and the war in Ukraine. Additionally, shortages in raw materials and equipment have pushed some companies to the edge leading them to rethink their growth strategy.

The complex supply chain to find raw materials and the limited number of high-tech machines hinder the overall production of alternative proteins. Most of the plant-based products in today’s markets revolve around three main ingredients (soy, pea, and wheat) which are grown in a few countries in a monoculture model. This has left some consumers worried about the environmental impacts of such foods and whether a high degree of food processing could lead to health issues.

Partnerships between players along the whole supply chain can help leverage each constituent’s expertise such as cutting-edge knowledge, capital investments, and advocating for a tailormade regulatory framework for alternative proteins.

As to your question about collaboration, it's tremendously important – no industry is a one-person show, so partnerships need to happen to facilitate the global commercializing of alternative proteins. At the time being, collaboration is proving difficult to foster due to IP matters and trade secrets owned by a handful of players that are not willing to share their advantages with other entities. The industry is also nascent, so collaboration needs to happen gradually and be thought out in advance. Nonetheless, we have some major improvements this year at the international level with the Codex Alimentarius acknowledging the necessity to issue standards or guidelines on alternative proteins.

How vital do you think global harmonization of alt protein products is to make it easier for innovators to bring their products to market?

It is crucial but we should center our efforts on regional harmonization as it is unlikely that alternative proteins can be regulated under one single law throughout the whole world. Novel foods are a prime example of this situation where, for instance, both the USA and the EU have a system governing their commercialization but the EU system is stricter than the one from the USA. Conversely, some countries cherry-picked some key features of several existing regulatory systems like Saudi Arabia, whose novel food regulation is a mix between the EU, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand systems. Although food is a global phenomenon, the societal and cultural weight of food in a specific country will be reflected in its legislation. This ultimately explains why a food approved in one country won’t be necessarily accepted in another one. Food is regulated at a local level.

Nevertheless, the urgency to foster collaboration between countries and create a fair level playing field has been addressed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission this year when they opened public consultations to discuss the need for guidance to regulate alternative proteins.

Working on the regulatory side, you must have been thrilled with the UPSIDE Foods milestone from last November?

Absolutely, that FDA-UPSIDE news was fantastic news and may encourage other companies to go through the GRAS notification system. Nonetheless, the GRAS system is a notification system, not an approval system. This means that even if the FDA were to express some concerns about the safety of the product, a company can still put its product on the market while it is not possible in regions where novel foods must go through an approval system such as Canada or the European Union. The USA is one of the most liberal markets in the world which relies on the doctrine 'ask for forgiveness, not permission' while other markets (especially the EU) have a paternalistic approach where all foods are presumed unsafe until proven otherwise.

You will be appearing on a panel at The Future of Protein Production Summit on the topic of ‘Regulatory considerations of alternative proteins regarding animal welfare, public health, and food sustainability - a global analysis’. What will be the key takeaways for our delegates from what you bring to the table?

Alternative proteins, like any other food-stuffs, must comply with the applicable regulations and cannot proclaim to have some benefits when they do not in fact fulfil the requirements. Animal welfare encompasses parameters such as animal care, nutrition and animal testing. Whether a company has made use of animal testing is not legally required to be communicated to consumers but will be available in the application dossier when it needs to prove the safety of its product. Animal testing happens way more often than the public may envision considering that a high number of countries have not updated the mandatory testing methods for about two decades! They tend to privilege in vivo over in silico and in vitro methods regardless of scientific advancements highlighting the unjustified use of animals to prove a product’s safety. At the time being, apart from eggs, most animal welfare claims are voluntary. Animal welfare is nonetheless part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, hence the EU establishing a working group on animal welfare labeling. Other regions such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada took another stand and consider that these claims belong to the private sector and there is no need for governmental agencies to have a set of official rules yet.

Public health is about health and nutrition claims that alternative proteins must use only when they fulfil the mandatory conditions or have applied for a proprietary one. Even countries with very shallow food laws have a set of authorized health and nutrition claims whose conditions of use may differ from other countries. Food sustainability has been a hot topic for several years and ironically no legal framework vis-à-vis regulated claims exist yet. Canada, Australia and New Zealand disengaged from having a state-regulated system while the EU is currently working on having a dedicated framework as part of the Farm to Fork strategy. In addition, at the global scale, the Codex Alimentarius does not have a guideline or standard on these themes apart from health and nutrition claims giving little guidance to countries that would like to have a set framework.

My added value lies in the fact that I taught myself these three pillars and I can apply them to alternative proteins in multiple regions as I have handled cases in various parts of the world (Europe, North America, the Middle East, APAC, LATAM). Each food system has specificities related to the culture and food safety concerns of its region.

Presumably you get to taste a lot of products in the marketplace. What products impress you and why?

I wish but sadly I have only had the opportunity to taste a handful of products in the plant-based sector. As a consumer and advisor to companies, it really warms my heart when companies manage to launch an inclusive approach with products that are allergen-free, for instance, and showcase ingredients whose potential remained untapped until then.

What are the elephants in the room of alternative proteins?

Alternative proteins can be viewed as an elitist way of eating since their control is controlled in the hands of a few potent players in the food industry. Additionally, the alternative proteins sector will not necessarily include traditional animal proteins despite some efforts of companies to render them more sustainable. Bettering our food system is not a black and white approach as it is a multifaceted topic that requires the inclusion of anyone that could help the world reach net zero by 2050.

Moreover, I have seen a lot of people portraying alternative proteins as a silver bullet solution for reshaping our eating habits but it is virtually impossible to have foods that can cater to everyone’s palate. We need to have an inclusive approach by acknowledging that regional specificies will dictate which alternative proteins are the most poised to disrupt people’s diet in a given territory. 

How have you seen the investment landscape change over the past 12 months, from the boom of 2020-2021 to a more challenging year when it comes to attracting finance? Do you think that alt proteins can weather the storm of the current global economic climate? Or, because they offer a long-term solution to climate change, do you think they will come out the other side relatively unscathed?

The novelty effect seems to have faded away, it’s no longer enough to present just an alternative to a product of animal origin, it must bring an additional element such as originality, inclusivity, or versatility. First and foremost, companies must put forward what distinguishes them from their competitors. This industry has not reached its peak yet which makes it challenging to imagine how it can survive troublesome periods. Players without a resilient strategy will be driven out of the market and those able to navigate the turmoil would have successfully managed to reassess their business plan. We just have to wait and see but changes happen in every industry and alternative proteins are not foreign to this phenomenon.

What fills you hope about the alt proteins sector – and, conversely, what irritates you off about what you are seeing today?

I am hopeful that alternative proteins will become the norm and that people will detach themselves from the idea that proteins from animals are the default choice. On the other hand, I am slightly irritated when investors or companies profess that their products can be launched overnight while regulatory and legally speaking they need to undergo a throughout assessment, which takes up to a couple of years, in an attempt to bolster investment and deliver an overoptimistic thesis. I have worked with a range of entities and it always blows my mind how little some key individuals know about the regulatory framework and consider it as a detail in their growth plan.

Let's look to the future. Where do you think the sector and your consultancy will be in 2030?

As a consultant, I am driven by the desire to create something that has lasting value for the marketplace. My plan for my business is to educate alternative protein companies on regulatory considerations when designing, marketing, and commercializing their products throughout the world. I am putting a strong emphasis on explaining the framework in an accessible way to make them aware of potential pitfalls in their strategy from day one. I recently released a legal analysis on the naming and marketing of vegan and plant-based alternatives to products of animal origin in Europe where I provide a clear roadmap to enterprises to navigate the space with ease. I am planning on writing a similar guidebook for products derived from fermentation and cell ag. In 2030, I would like to pivot to an advisory role where I could help companies scale up and penetrate new markets and or be part of an accelerator.

The Future of Protein Production Summit takes place virtually on 21/22/23 February 2023. Tickets are on sale now, so to register to hear Mathilde and more than 80 other speakers, 50 presentations, eight panel discussions, and three Startup Pitch Symposiums, click here

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

About the Speaker

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