Have you ever gone to the grocery, bought a carton of milk only to get home and find that you grabbed soy milk instead of the more traditional cow’s milk? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to know!
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb posted a statement on his organization’s website today saying that his agency is seeking public comments on the ongoing debate over what can and can’t be labeled as “milk.” In explaining the rationale for this discussion about labeling, Gottlieb writes:
The rising demand for plant-based products, like soy-based alternatives to cheese and nut-based alternatives to milk, has created a growing number of new food choices in supermarket aisles. However, these products are not foods that have been standardized under names like “milk” and “cheese.” The FDA has concerns that the labeling of some plant-based products may lead consumers to believe that those products have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products, even though these products can vary widely in their nutritional content. It is important that we better understand consumers’ expectations of these plant-based products compared to dairy products.
Earlier this year, Gottlieb indicated that his agency would begin to enforce the existing regulation around what can be marketed as milk. Gottlieb made headlines when he noted that the current standard for defining milk is that it comes from a lactating animal before going on to say “almonds don’t lactate” (a comment soundly mocked by Stephen Colbert).
While you may not have your own late night talk show, you can make your voice heard on the topic. As Gottlieb goes on to explain, the FDA is reaching out to the public for comment on the topic:
We’re on a fast track to take a fresh look at the labeling of products that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for dairy products. And, today, we’ve taken the first step in this process by issuing a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register to solicit comments and feedback from the public to gain more insight into how consumers use plant-based alternatives and how they understand terms like “milk” or “cheese” when used to label products made, for example, from soy, peas or nuts. We’re interested to know if consumers are aware of, and understand, the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products — and between these products and dairy — when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families.
While it’s being framed as a discussion around consumer information and protection, the whole debate smacks more of protecting existing industries. Sales of plant-based milks are up while cow milk sales have dropped. Dairy and other agricultural associations have lobbied Gottlieb to enforce the existing regulation. Forcing plant-based “milks” to instead refer to themselves as “beverages” on all their branding could have a negative impact on sales.
Milk isn’t the only product label looking at being disrupted. There is a whole other debate raging about what can and can’t be called “meat” as cell-based meat and other plant-based meat alternatives come to market. The lines there are similarly drawn, with traditional ranchers and cattelmen lobbying to keep the status quo.
And just so there’s no confusion on this, if you have thoughts on the topic of “milk,” you can visit the Federal Register tomorrow, Sept. 28, and leave a comment.