Dairy Labeling for Plant-based "Milk" Could be Enforced by FDA

Nut Milk Labeling Clip

The Food and Drug Administration looks poised to enforce labeling rules for plant-based beverages and foods that claim to be traditional dairy products or “milk.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a statement on July 26 saying that the government agency plans to review and modernize dairy labeling.

“Food labels – including the name of food – inform consumers about what they’re buying, and standards of identity are used to ensure that foods have the characteristics expected by consumers. The information provided through food labeling must be truthful and not misleading. The consumer choices made based on this information can have important impacts on health,” Gottlieb says.

In the topic of food labeling clarity Gottlieb singled out dairy where plant-based products have taken on terms like milk, yogurt and cheese. In the statement he outlines that “milk” was long defined as coming from an animal and was reinforced by the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

“In addition, some of these products can vary widely in their nutritional content – for instance in relation to inherent protein or in added vitamin content – when compared to traditional milk,” Gottlieb says.

Rickets has been witnessed in children who have a vitamin D deficiency from drinking soy-based alternatives to cow’s milk. Kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition, has also been observed in children who were fed rice-based beverages.

“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘‘milk,’’ we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” Gottlieb says.

FDA also plans to look at how the agency enforces the FD&C Act regarding food names and the standard of identity for milk. Gottlieb realizes the FDA has traditionally not enforced these terms, but the agency will also see how the First Amendment plays into the issue.

Dairy groups were glad to see some positive movement in regards to plant-based dairy labeling.

“We are pleased to see that the FDA has finally recognized the need to increase its scrutiny of plant-based products imitating standardized dairy foods,” says Jim Mulhern, National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) president and CEO. “We are further encouraged by FDA’s recognition that standards of identity also verify that a food must possess a ‘basic nature’ and measure of expectation to earn the use of the standardized name.”

Both NMPF and FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative thanked Commissioner Gottlieb for his actions thus far on plant-based dairy products.

“FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative strongly recommends that the FDA, while it does their reevaluation, enforce their current definitions for not only ‘milk’, but also ‘cheese’, ‘yogurt’, and ‘ice cream’ because the current definitions have always met consumers’ expectations,” a statement from the cooperative says.

“Consumers may understand that plant-based products do not come from cows. However, by including the word milk on the labels of these imitation products, consumers are led to believe these plant-based foods have the same level of nutrition as traditional dairy products, which is not the case. Unfortunately, this assumption has harmed children, as there have been reports of children suffering from severe protein and vitamin D deficiencies,” FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative states.