U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has indicated that his agency may soon restrict makers of plant-based beverages from using the word "milk" on product labeling. Gottlieb discussed the matter at a recent POLITICO Pro Summit in Washington, D.C.
"You see the proliferation of products like soy milk and almond milk calling themselves milk, but if you look at our standard of identity, there is a reference somewhere in the standard of identity to a lactating animal, and you know an almond doesn't lactate, I will confess," he said at the event. "And so the question becomes, have we been enforcing our own standard of identity? The answer is probably not." He added that the FDA can't unilaterally change standards of identity and that the process could take a year.
Gottlieb also said the FDA would soon be issuing a guidance document describing the changes it is considering to the standards of identity for marketing milk.
Gottlieb's comments signal that traditional dairy producers are about to score a big victory in their fight to keep plant-based beverages from using the word "milk" on product labels. The industry has been hit hard by competition from beverages made from soy, rice, almonds, hemp, oats and other nuts and grains — as well as from a record milk surplus, prices below the cost of production and recent Chinese tariffs on U.S. cheese and whey.
To fight back, the dairy industry has appealed to Congress and the FDA, gone to court and pushed for federal legislation calling on the agency to enforce its legal definition of milk. But it was language included in this past spring's $1.3-trillion omnibus spending bill, funding the government through Sept. 30, that directed the FDA to resolve the issue. It gave the agency 180 days from when the bill passed, or approximately Sept. 23, to prepare new standards and issue industry guidance about how they will be enforced.
As the debate rages on, the dairy industry has claimed that plant-based product labeling confuses customers when the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to dairy-based milk. 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.
It's not clear how the FDA will firm up the standards of identity for marketing milk. There are a number of alternative terms that could be used: "plant-based beverage," simply "beverage," or perhaps "fortified beverage." Producers of these plant-based products won't be happy with such changes — and are likely to argue that switching up labeling is expensive.
Gottlieb noted the whole process could take up to a year and the agency will take comments on any changes it proposes. Those comments are liable to be polarized, with some criticizing the agency for tackling what they see as a non-issue and others saying it's about time something was done to rein in dairy-free milk imposters.
But even if the FDA restricts the word "milk" to products containing animal-derived liquids and strongly enforces the standards, it may not make any real difference to marketing and sales of either traditional dairy milk or plant-based beverages. Consumers are likely to continue to seek out and purchase their favorites, recognizing them by brand name and packaging. Despite official changes regarding what such beverages are called, consumers may go on calling them "milk," no matter what the label says.