Editorial Comment Publisher/Editor

 

Agencies Should Agree On Terminology For Dairy Alternatives

Dick Groves
Publisher/Editor
Cheese Reporter Publishing Co., Inc.
dgroves@cheesereporter.com 608-316-3791

August 10, 2018

 

On the one hand, it’s been refreshing to hear Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, talk about the need for greater clarity when it comes to the traditional dairy terms currently being used by many if not most plant-based foods on the market these days.

On the other hand, it would appear that the federal government itself needs to come to some sort of agreement on these dairy terms before it starts consistently enforcing its existing regulations in the consumer marketplace.

What are we talking about here? First, Gottlieb has mentioned several times this year that he wants FDA to take a closer look at how non-dairy alternatives are labeled.

Most recently, at FDA’s public meeting two weeks ago on the agency’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy, Gottlieb noted that there has been a proliferation of products like soy and almond beverages calling themselves milk. The challenge for FDA is, as a regulatory agency, “we can’t unilaterally change our regulatory approach if we have a history of enforcing our provisions a certain way.”

Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture recently caught our attention when it sought bids for the acquisition of sunflower seed butter. The agency awarded a contract to Red River Commodities, Inc., Fargo, ND, for a total of 258,720 pounds of sunflower seed butter at a price range of $1.9475 to $1.9899 per pound. The delivery period is the last three months of 2018.

Interestingly, USDA also recently bought some real dairy butter.
Specifically, the agency purchased a total of 75,600 pounds of butter from Challenge Dairy Products, Inc., at a price of $2.85 per pound. The delivery period is the last three months of 2018.

This raises at least a couple of questions. First, what the heck is sunflower seed butter? And second, isn’t it a little inconsistent for FDA to talk about cracking down on the use of dairy terms on non-dairy products while at the same time USDA is buying non-dairy products that use dairy terms?

USDA actually has a Commercial Item Description (CID) for sunflower seed butter (a number of dairy products also have CIDs, including “buttery spreads”). According to that CID, sunflower seed butter must contain a minimum of 90 percent sunflower seeds and be prepared by grinding shelled, roasted sunflower seeds. The sunflower seed butter may contain additional ingredients, such as, but not limited to, salt, sea salt, sweeteners, sunflower pieces, sunflower oil, palm oil and other stabilizing and preservation ingredients as permitted by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Regarding that second question, it certainly does seem inconsistent to have FDA talking about cracking down on dairy terms used on non-dairy alternatives while at the same time USDA is buying some of these non-dairy alternatives.

When it comes to butter and plant-based butter alternatives, there’s arguably more history involved than with any other plant-based dairy alternatives. Butter is believed to be the only food product that has actually been defined by Congress.

Specifically, way back in 1923, Congress defined butter as a product “made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with or without additional coloring matter, and containing not less than 80 percentum by weight of milk fat...” There doesn’t seem to be any mention of sunflowers.

This does raise a related question about peanut butter, a plant-based food that also uses a dairy term. As it turns out, according to the National Peanut Board, back in 1895, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Kellogg’s cereal) patented a process for creating peanut butter from raw peanuts.

So the use of the term “peanut butter” predates the law defining “butter” by almost three decades, meaning that, if the federal government really does crack down on dairy terms being used on non-dairy foods, it could just grant an exception to peanut “butter” based on its long history of use.

USDA (and FDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services) is actually inconsistent in its use of dairy terms for non-dairy alternatives. The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for example, advises that healthy eating patterns include fat-free and lowfat dairy, “including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages (commonly known as ‘soymilk’).” There are several points in the report where the same clarification is used.

USDA reverses course on its choosemyplate.gov website. When discussing the “Dairy Group,” USDA notes that foods made from milk that retain their calcium content are part of the group, while foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream, and butter, are not.

The agency then offers this: “Calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage) is also part of the Dairy Group.” So cream cheese, cream and butter aren’t part of the dairy group, but “soymilk” is? Interesting.

USDA also offers some helpful selection tips. For example, calcium choices for those who do not consume dairy products include calcium fortified rice milk or almond milk, as well as soybeans and other soy products (soy yogurt is specifically mentioned).

FDA is accepting comments on its Nutrition Innovation Strategy public meeting, including its standards of identity, through Aug. 27, 2018. As it sifts through the many comments it will no doubt receive, the agency should also consult with USDA on how exactly to refer to non-dairy alternatives. The inconsistency within the federal government isn’t doing anybody any favors.



Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to
dgroves @cheesereporter.com.

 

 

Dick Groves

Dick Groves has been publisher/editor of Cheese Reporter since 1989. He has over 35 years experience covering the dairy industry. His weekly editorial is read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3791 dgroves@cheesereporter.com
https://twitter.com/cheesereporter.


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