- In public comments to the Food and Drug Administration about the labeling of plant-based dairy products, Danone and Chobani passionately defended opposite viewpoints. Danone is in favor of maintaining the status quo, while Chobani expressed concern with using "milk" as a description for these liquids.
- Danone wrote the current labeling conventions are "consistent with regulations and case law," since milk is a class of product. "The recent suggestions by other stakeholders that plant-based products ... (using dairy terminology) may prevent people from making healthier choices are troubling and not based on facts," Danone's Vice President of Federal and Industry Affairs Christopher Adamo wrote.
- Chobani wrote in comments that plant-based products should use different terms to accurately convey that its nutritional value is different from dairy. "There is no room for confusing the nutritional and health benefits associated with dairy terms. Confusion can lead to a failure to meet critical life-stage nutrition needs and unintended public health concerns," wrote Robert Post, senior director of Chobani health and wellness.
The FDA’s debate on the usage of the term "milk" to describe plant-based products just got two new opinions from dairy titans to weigh heavily on the scales. The FDA opened this comment period in late September to get the public's opinion on using traditional terms for plant-based products.
In the last several years, markets have been changing. Those involved in the dairy industry have been suffering from changing consumer tastes. At the same time, companies involved in the plant-based dairy sector were benefiting.
Non-dairy milk sales jumped 9% to $1.6 billion in the 52 weeks ended in June, according to figures from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association. During that same period, sales of cow's milk fell 6%. With yogurt sales at the center of this shift, it is no coincidence that the two titans in the segment are offering their two cents in the debate.
Chobani, which recently released a new coconut-based yogurt, is also the largest traditional Greek yogurt manufacturer with 40% of the market. The company argued in its comments that plant-based alternatives — with the exception of fortified soy beverages — are not included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans' dairy definition because they have a different nutritional makeup and can't fulfill the same nutritional requirements. The company claimed part of this shift toward plant-based products has resulted in 86% of the population not getting enough dairy, according to figures in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Danone, on the other hand, feels consumers know the difference between the nutritional content of the two products and that there is no confusion.
"An overwhelming majority of people correctly understand which products contain and which do not contain milk from cows," Adamo wrote in a comment.
Studies support that claim. A recent online survey from the International Food Information Council found about three-quarters of consumers know that plant-based milk doesn't contain cow's milk. The result is that consumers often buy both products. About 44% of milk-consuming Americans purchased both dairy and plant-based milk in the last year, according to another recent survey.
And Danone, a longtime presence in the traditional dairy space, is benefiting from its newly bolstered plant portfolio. The yogurt giant purchased plant-based leader WhiteWave Foods for $12.5 billion in a deal that closed in 2017. At the end of the fourth quarter of 2018, Danone's dairy and plant-based operation in North America posted its fifth consecutive quarter of growth with sales up 2.7%. Plant-based items were one of the segments driving growth.
The French company noted in its comments to FDA that this runaway growth is a reason to embrace the segment rather than limit it with labeling constraints. Sales of plant-based products have risen by 61% over the past five years and a Mintel report from September 2017 estimated they would make up more than $2 billion in sales by the end of that year. Non-dairy milk is expected to only continue to increase its presence in the marketplace.
But Chobani is not reaping the same rewards. The company remains a dominant force in yogurt, but after years of growth, Greek-style sales are declining. With struggles on that front and a smaller market share than Danone, it makes sense that Chobani is feeling pressure and would be keen to limit plant-based product associations with milk. For its new plant-based line, Chobani does not use any traditional dairy terms in its marketing or on the products themselves. Chobani's Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer Peter McGuinness told Food Dive the company believes using that terminology would be misleading.
Still, from a regulatory standpoint, it’s not likely that simply changing the terminology from "milk" to something like "plant-based beverage" is going to make much difference. Seeing this debate continue to rage, the Center for Sciences in the Public Interest suggested that the FDA require front of package disclosure for plant-based products that do not offer the equivalent nutrients of dairy either naturally or by fortification.
While that may settle the argument over nutritional differences, a compromise like this will not settle the underlying ideological debate, which promises to continue — potentially even after FDA rules on the terminology.