An online survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found about three-quarters of consumers know that plant-based "milk" doesn't contain cow's milk.
The survey results also revealed large percentages of consumers are aware products labeled as "whole milk," "chocolate milk," "nonfat milk" and skim milk" do contain cow's milk, although a lower number — 48% — knew that about "lactose-free milk." Of the total survey respondents, 62% said they only buy dairy milk, and 38% buy non-dairy.
Information was collected from 1,000 adults between Aug. 4-6 by Lincoln Park Strategies on behalf of IFIC. Results were adjusted to make sure the group was proportionally represented, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3.1%. The research was supported by Danone North America.
This survey comes in the midst of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 60-day comment period asking members of the public how they use plant-based dairy alternatives and understand the meaning of terms such as "milk" and "cheese" on products not made with conventional dairy.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said 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 agency could 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 if public comments have first been collected and analyzed.
The dairy industry has been been lobbying the FDA to crack down on plant-based products using the words "milk," "yogurt" or "cheese" 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. Federal legislation has been introduced to limit the word "milk" to products made from lactating cows, but, as this IFIC survey shows, the majority of consumers don't seem confused by the term — and they generally seem aware of which products contain cow's milk and which ones don't.
It will be interesting to see whether the results of the IFIC online survey mirror the FDA comments when the 60-day comment period is up on Nov. 27. A cursory look at a few of the 700-plus comments the agency had received as of Oct. 10 indicated about twice as many commenters thought plant-based products should be allowed to be labeled as "milk," "yogurt," "cheese," etc., as those who said only dairy-based products should be labeled with those terms.
The dairy 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. It's understandable that milk and other dairy producers want to restrict plant-based product labeling and do whatever they can to limit competition.
It's possible the FDA may not decide what action to take based on the clarity — or lack thereof — consumers say they have about milk products. Commissioner Gottlieb has publicly noted the current dairy standards of identify refer to a lactating animal and that "an almond doesn't lactate." So it wouldn't be a big surprise if the agency sides with traditional dairy producers who want to keep plant-based beverages from using "milk" and related terms on their product labels.
No matter what the FDA does next, it seems pretty late in the game to change labeling rules now without causing a lot of financial and logistical hassle for non-dairy product makers. And, as the IFIC survey shows, most consumers are smarter about identifying products than the dairy industry may think, and they seem to be well aware of what they're buying. Restricting product labeling may make the dairy industry happy, but it's probably not going to make much difference to the buying habits of most shoppers.