- The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the definition of the word “milk,” according to a news release. The initiative is being presented as an effort to protect public health and ensure consumers are clear about the differences between “milk” as it is defined by federal regulations and plant-based varieties that use milk in the product’s name.
- Based on the results of the review, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb indicated that there may be “a new compliance policy” associated with the use of the word. However, he noted that this will not be a unilateral enforcement; the agency will first engage with the public about how consumers understand the use of the term.
- “There are reports that indicate this issue needs examination,” he said. “For example, case reports show that feeding rice-based beverages to young children resulted in a disease called kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition. There has also been a case report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk.”
This is a decision that has been a long time coming. In fact, emails obtained by the Good Food Institute, a group that promotes vegan alternatives, showed that as far back as 2011, the Food and Drug Administration did not want to call a soy-based dairy alternative drink "milk" in documentation — but the U.S. Department of Agriculture used that phrasing anyway.
That choice has led to a slew of lawsuits and legislation. Now the issue is back to the FDA to enforce its original stance on milk.
After prompting the FDA to enforce its legal definition of milk, the debate has raged on, with the dairy industry claiming that plant-based product labeling confuses customers and can be dangerous because the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to dairy-based milk.
It seems that Gottlieb has taken this argument to heart.
“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as 'milk,' we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” he said in the statement.
He also claimed that this potential confusion between dairy-based and plant-based milk has led to children not receiving enough nutrients, arguing that changing the label could help people make better decisions about what to eat.
Still, there is no indication that just because it is called "milk," people believe that it's identical to the cow-derived drink that was promoted during the “Got Milk?” campaign. Gottlieb emphasized that changing the terminology would not be a unilateral decision by the FDA. Instead, he is going to the court of public opinion to hear feedback on how the FDA should assess whether or not the standard of identity for the word "milk" reflects consumer expectations about that food.
While the comments about how consumers view milk will likely be polarized, it's unlikely that a label change will occur. The request has already been shot down in courts around the country. And for years, these plant-based alternatives have been referred to as "milk" because it was considered "plain language" by the USDA. Alternatively, the labels may change, but the dairy industry may be forced to be more specific in their labeling — stating that they are selling cow or goat milk to avoid confusion.
As such, it will be hard to eradicate the term from consumers’ speech. Creating dissonance between spoken and written terminology may damage the branding that these plant-based alternatives have worked to cultivate.
In any case, it is going to be difficult for the dairy industry to climb out of the financial hole that it's in. Non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. have increased 61% during the past five years and were estimated to reach $2.11 billion in 2017, according to Mintel. Meanwhile, overall sales in the dairy milk category have dropped 15% since 2012, hitting an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017.
Still, if the FDA can make the case that terminology can facilitate more healthful food choices — even though consumers are likely to continue to seek out and purchase their favorites — the plant-based beverage industry will have to rethink its marketing strategy.