It looks like the debate over what we label cultured/lab grown/clean “meat” will not be isolated to the deli case. If the comments made by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb today are any indication, there will be another drawn out battle over what we label as “milk.”

Speaking at the Politico Pro Summit today, Gottlieb said that his agency would start more strictly enforcing rules over what can be marketed as “milk.” This could potentially be bad news for companies behind plant-based milks such as soy and almond, etc..

Just last week the FDA held a public meeting on what to label lab grown meat, spurred on in part by complaints from the US Cattleman’s Association which believe only products derived from animals born and raised should be labeled “beef.” The public meeting was a move by the FDA to get ahead of the debate as lab-grown meat is not available commercially yet.

Gottlieb’s comments today reflect just how far behind the curve the FDA is when talking about or enforcing regulations regarding “milk,” as plant-based varietals are pretty well entrenched in supermarkets right now. In fact, non-dairy milk sales have shot up 61 percent since 2012, and new “milk” varietals keep popping up: cashew milk, quinoa milk and even something like Perfect Day is on the way, which makes true milk from yeast.

Much like the cattlemen, dairy farmers are none too happy with these upstarts getting labeled as milk. Last week, 37 state farm bureaus and other agricultural associations sent the FDA a letter rebuking the agency for not enforcing its guidelines when it comes to labeling milk. Among the complaints was that “Plant-based beverages are not held to the same ‘Standards of Identity’ and yet they share in the benefits of using the term ‘milk’ on their packaging.”

Standards of Identity is a key phrase here, and one that Gottlieb mentions in his talk. It’s the rules set out by the government to define what a product is (how many tomatoes need to be in a product to make it “ketchup,” etc.) Gottlieb mentions that in the FDA’s standard of identity for milk, the regulations say it needs to come from a lactating animal. “An almond doesn’t lactate,” he said jokingly.

Gottleib said that up until now, the FDA had not been enforcing its own standard of identity, but will start doing so. But before he can do that, he has to go through some bureaucratic hoops like notification and public comment. This process, Gottlieb said, will probably take a year and he concedes will most likely result in his agency getting sued by those behind plant-based milk, which could extend the process even further.

Though he made the almond lactation quip, Gottlieb seems to understand that the fight over milk is going to be a tough one. He points out that while the FDA has a definition of what milk is, so does the actual dictionary, which Webster’s defines as:

  1. a : a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young
    b (1) : milk from an animal and especially a cow used as food by people
    (2) : a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow’s milk, coconut milk, soy milk
  2. : a liquid resembling milk in appearance: such as
    a : the latex of a plant
    b : the contents of an unripe kernel of grain

You can watch all of Gottlieb’s comments on milk in a queued up video here.

Milk, it seems, will be yet another area of our complicated modern lives that will become controversial and force us to pick sides (I’m Team plant-based MILK all the way!). And it surely won’t end there. As science creates new methods of recreating existing foods (meat, fish, milk, yogurt, ice cream…), established players will fight to hold on to their dominance and do what they can to thwart disruption.

What do you think? Are you pro soy milk, or would you prefer a soy-derived non-dairy beverage?

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  1. How many almonds are in a quart of whatever you call it? 3? Maybe 4? For $2, minimum? I’m not sure I care what these substitutes are called or that I’ll buy them anymore!

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