The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is considering modifying the definitions, called “standards of identity,” for a variety of food products, including whether items labeled “milk” must come exclusively from lactating animals.
For decades, the FDA has set labeling standards for a wide variety of food products. Under a deregulatory initiative by former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who left the agency on April 5, 2019, the FDA is reviewing 17,000 public comments on the labeling of plant-based products that include the names of dairy foods such as “milk,” “cultured milk,” “yogurt,” and “cheese.”
Legislation restricting the use of dairy-related terms has also been proposed. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) sponsored a bill in 2017 to reserve the name “milk” for dairy beverages and label soy and nut milks as something else. Baldwin, along with Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), introduced the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (DAIRY PRIDE Act) on March 14, 2019.
Shoppers aren’t confused by nondairy product labels, says Daren Bakst, a senior research fellow in agriculture policy at The Heritage Foundation.
“Consumers don’t think almond milk comes from cows,” said Bakst. “They know that plant-based products using ‘milk’ in their names are not dairy products, and they have known this for many years.”
Milk has never been a term used exclusively for dairy items, says Joshua Sewell, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“The fact is for millennia people have been creating foods they refer to as ‘milk’ from a variety of items, including rice, coconuts, and other foodstuffs, besides the fluids that come from a cow’s udder,” said Sewell.
The current naming conventions emphasize important information about the differences between plant-based and dairy products, says Bakst.
“The entire purpose of using ‘almond,’ ‘soy,’ or other descriptors is to clearly indicate to consumers that the product is distinct from milk,” said Bakst. “This is very helpful information, especially for individuals intentionally avoiding dairy, such as those who are lactose-intolerant.”
What would confuse consumers is if plant-based products can’t use the term “milk,” says Bakst.
“If those products were called ‘almond drinks’ or whatever new name was adopted, that’s when there’d be confusion,” said Bakst. “Instead of having helpful names for consumers, the new names would be unhelpful.”
Names currently used to market nondairy goods inform consumers of alternatives, says Bakst.
“These products include dairy-related terms to help consumers understand the potential uses of the product,” said Bakst. “For example, the use of ‘milk’ in ‘almond milk’ informs consumers that they can use the product in cereal, their coffee, and other situations.”
‘Merely a Protectionist Scheme’
The point of restricting the labeling of nondairy products is to make it more difficult for competitors to sell their products, says Bakst.
“There’s a lot of innovation that is occurring right now in the food sector to meet the diverse needs of consumers,” Bakst said. “This type of protectionist scheme discourages such innovation. [The Dairy Pride Act] is merely a protectionist scheme to help dairy interests.”
Baldwin’s bill would not serve the public interest, says Sewell.
“The point is to use government to advantage one business over another,” said Sewell. “It’s a classic case of an industry trying to get the government to pick winners and losers.”
Food production is a much broader sector than dairy farming, says Sewell.
“Businesses involved in farming and ranching play an important role in our national and state economies, [and] exploiting people’s love of farmers in order to gain an economic advantage by reducing consumer choice is just wrong,” said Sewell.
Interests vs. Common Sense
The fight over definitions is playing out in many areas of the food industry, Sewell said.
“Lobbyists for the livestock sector want to use it to defeat competition from lab-grown or cell-cultured meat,” Sewell said. “There is a similar issue around commonsense names for foods running afoul of ‘geographical indications’ for things like Asiago, Parmesan, or Brie cheeses.”
Baldwin’s dairy bill is under consideration by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and the FDA could propose changes to its definition of milk at any time.
Ashley Herzog ([email protected]) writes from Avon Lake, Ohio.