WCMA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

A Disappointing Guidance From FDA

John Umhoefer executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

March 3, 2023


So, FDA has decided almonds do lactate.

The US Food and Drug Administration has issued a draft guidance in favor of labeling plant-based beverages as milk. The guidance has enough tortured logic and confounding conclusions to make plain that this is a shot across the bow of animal agriculture.

“This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law,” FDA states in the opening of this guidance. Here’s some clarity: FDA itself declared in 1973 that “milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

Now the agency is proposing to defy their own regulation — implying that any regulation can simply be ignored.

“Plant-based milk alternatives are not milk; they are made from plant materials rather than the lacteal secretion of cows,” FDA states in the guidance. “Consequently, under the FD&C Act, they may not be offered for sale as ‘milk’,” FDA adds. And then this tortured twist: “Although many plant-based milk alternatives are labeled with names that bear the term ‘milk,’ they do not purport to be nor are they represented as milk.”

Say what?

FDA intends to let peas, walnuts and oats use the word “milk,” because they feel that consumers know those beverages aren’t dairy milk. In their words: “The comments and information we reviewed indicate that consumers, generally, do not mistake plant-based milk alternatives for milk.”

In 2018, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Edge Cooperative and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin found otherwise, commissioning third-party consumer research on plant based foods that mimic dairy foods. In that study, one quarter of consumers mistakenly indicated that pasteurized milk was present in plant-based foods that mimic cheese and one quarter didn’t know what ingredients were in these mimics.

FDA did not report this finding, although this and additional data from our consumer study was submitted to the agency during its public comment period.

Plant-based imitation cheeses are not covered in FDA’s new draft guidance — they stuck with milk only — and get this: “The comments, other research reviewed, and our analysis of the data suggest a potential public health concern related to the substitution of milk with plant based milk alternatives that contain lower amounts of certain nutrients than found in milk,” FDA states in the guidance.

Flat out, FDA is stating that these imitation “milks” are a public health concern — but they still propose to green light the term “milk” for these imitators. Only an anti-animal-agriculture agenda would cause the agency to support these plant beverages, knowing they are often nutritionally inferior.

And they do know it: “Americans already consume less from the Dairy Group than what is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines and the nutritional composition of plant-based milk alternatives varies greatly and often is not similar to milk,” FDA writes in this guidance.

“Therefore,” FDA continues, “consistently consuming plant-based milk alternatives that do not have a similar nutritional composition to milk in place of milk, without the addition of other foods to supply the missing nutrients, could lead to further inadequate intakes of nutrients of public health concern and other nutrients that pose a special public health challenge.”

To paraphrase: We may be facing a public health challenge here, FDA says, but let’s let allow these plant slurries to be deemed “milk” anyway.

Laughably, the agency adds the idea of voluntary, negative nutrition statements that plant-based beverage makers can put on their labels. Here’s FDA’s example of a nutrition statement that, say, a soy milk company may want to emblazon on their carton:

•“Contains lower amounts of [nutrient name(s)] than milk.”
“This type of voluntary nutrient statement,” FDA notes, “will clearly communicate to consumers when a plant-based milk alternative is lower in nutrients in comparison to milk.” Look for these negative statements soon in your grocer’s oatmilk case. But don’t hold your breath.

The only solution to the public health challenge that FDA appears ready to endorse, is legislation. Congress can compel FDA to get its act together.

On February 28, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jim Risch (R-ID), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Peter Welch (D-VT) introduced bipartisan legislation to combat the unfair practice of mislabeling non-dairy products using dairy names. The DAIRY PRIDE Act of 2023 would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae to no longer be mislabeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.

The grocery store can be a marketplace of ideas, but when grains and seeds and legumes appropriate the word milk to prop up their nutritionally inferior beverages, consumers will favor simple truth and common sense over hidden agendas
. JU

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the WCMA since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by Cheese Reporter columnists are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cheese Reporter.



John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org

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