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FDA Questions Non-Dairy Products Labeled as “Milk”

The agency announced that it will crack down on these products—and it was met with mixed reactions from various dairy and plant-based groups

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During the Politico Pro Summit last week, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb questioned the “standards of identity” of milk and announced that the agency might have to crack down plant-based beverages that label themselves as “milk” soon.

This isn’t entirely wrong because almond, soy, rice, and coconut milk aren’t exactly “milk” if we are to base it on FDA’s definition of milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

“An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” says Gottlieb. These non-dairy milks come from grinding or blending nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes, which are then fortified with vitamins and minerals to deliver the same nutrient profile, (sometimes) taste, and consistency of cow’s milk.

Furthermore, in a CNN interview, the NMPF’s senior vice president of communication Chris Galen believes that these non-dairy alternatives are trying to piggyback off milk’s positive and healthy reputation. Some plant-based milk brands can manage to sell their products without labeling them as “milk” and they still get purchased.

While the agency hasn’t laid down concrete plans yet, this is a development that would force manufacturers to take the word “milk” off their non-dairy products. FDA press officer Deborah Kotz said that “food names inform consumers about what they’re buying, and standard of identities ensure that food meets certain standards in terms of what’s in it.”

However, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) argues that these standards of the FDA are not even being enforced correctly. “The existing standards of identity clearly state that terms like ‘milk,’ ‘cheese,’ ‘yogurt,’ ‘ice cream,’ etc. apply to products made from cow’s milk. Non-dairy alternatives that mimic these products do not meet those standards of identity, and National Milk Producers Federation asked the FDA to enforce their labeling regulations,” the federation posts in their FAQ page.

The NMPF has sought FDA’s attention for several times already, but the agency has yet to make concrete enforcement action to this issue, despite sending warnings regarding misleading labeling claims to food companies. Furthermore, in a CNN interview, the NMPF’s senior vice president of communication Chris Galen believes that these non-dairy alternatives are trying to piggyback off milk’s positive and healthy reputation. Some plant-based milk brands can manage to sell their products without labeling them as “milk” and they still get purchased.

Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external communications for Danone North America, further adds to the defense: “In the United States, ‘soy milk,’ ‘almond milk,’ and ‘coconut milk’ are the common names for plant-based products under the current meaning of FDA regulation, and we communicate on our products with clear references.”

On the other hand, the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) maintains that omitting the word in non-dairy products would just create more confusion to the market. “Consumers understand exactly what almond milk is, but maybe not ‘almond beverage,’” said Michele Simon, executive director at the industry’s primary trade group.

Michael Neuwirth, senior director of external communications for Danone North America, further adds to the defense: “In the United States, ‘soy milk,’ ‘almond milk,’ and ‘coconut milk’ are the common names for plant-based products under the current meaning of FDA regulation, and we communicate on our products with clear references.” In addition to that, plant-based milk manufacturers primarily market their product as improved versions of milk because some people drink them for health and ethical reasons, and even just for personal preference.

It is not clear when the FDA will implement this policy, but they still need to draw a concrete line on what is and is not considered as “milk.” “This is going to take time,” Gottlieb says. “It’s not going to take two years, but it probably takes something close to a year to get to go through that process.”

Kotz admitted that the code definitions may have been outdated, so further review is needed. “Many (standards of identity) have existed for decades,” she also told CNN. “At the time they were developed, the FDA could not foresee the types of new products that would be developed in the future using different ingredients and/or manufacturing processes.”

It is important to note that the FDA definition of milk doesn’t mention goats or buffalos, yet they are still allowed to be called “milk.” Kotz admitted that the code definitions may have been outdated, so further review is needed. “Many (standards of identity) have existed for decades,” she also told CNN. “At the time they were developed, the FDA could not foresee the types of new products that would be developed in the future using different ingredients and/or manufacturing processes.”

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