The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is asking the public to comment about how it uses plant-based dairy alternatives and how it understands the meaning of terms such as "milk" and "cheese" on products not made with conventional dairy.
"We're interested to know if consumers are aware of, and understand, the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products — and between these products and dairy — when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.
- Comments will be collected for 60 days following today's publication of a notice and request for comments in the Federal Register. "The FDA hopes to receive new data submissions as part of this [request for information] to help us learn more about the nutritional profiles of different milk, modified milk, cultured milk, yogurt and cheese products compared to plant-based products (including fortified versions) that are being marketed as dairy substitutes," Gottlieb said.
The FDA commissioner signaled this past spring the agency might soon restrict makers of plant-based beverages from using the word "milk" on product labeling and issue new guidance on the standards of identity for products that can use traditional dairy industry terminology.
The FDA was directed to take up the matter by this spring's $1.3-trillion omnibus spending bill funding the government through Sept. 30. It gave the agency 180 days from when the bill passed — until approximately Sept. 23 — to prepare new standards and issue industry guidance about how they will be enforced.
It may be useful to solicit public comment from a wide range of consumers before making changes to such a contentious matter as the standards of identity for marketing milk. The FDA could then decide to mandate alternative terms for dairy alternatives — "plant-based beverage" or "fortified beverage," for example — and the move might be perceived as more solidly based on how consumers actually use products and interpret label terms.
When it comes down it, though, consumers probably don't really care how products are labeled as long as they can tell by brand names and packaging what the items contain. Also, most people aren't likely to be concerned whether a product label says "almond milk" or "almond beverage," as long as it still tastes the same and has the same ingredients.
The dairy industry has been been lobbying the FDA to crack down on plant-based products using the words "milk," "yogurt" or "cheese" on their products when there are no animal-derived ingredients present. According to CNBC, the industry has shelled out more than $2.7 million so far this year on lobbying.
Dairy producers claim plant-based product labeling confuses customers when the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to dairy-based milk. However, those supporting labeling plant-based beverages as "milk" have cited free speech rights of food producers. There is also an ongoing argument about which sector is more sustainable and climate-friendly.
Conventional dairy has good reason to be concerned about plant-based competitors. Non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. increased 61% during the past five years, according to Mintel. Meanwhile, overall sales of dairy milk dropped 15% since 2012, hitting an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017.
After public comments start rolling in, the FDA and anybody who looks online can see what people are saying and how manufacturers and producers are responding if they also choose to comment. A decision on this matter will not please everyone, but this way there are less likely to be complaints the process wasn't open and fair.