FDA commits to cracking down on plant-based 'milk' labels

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

 The FDA is looking for public feedback on dairy substitutes. Pic: ©GettyImages/AlexPro9500
The FDA is looking for public feedback on dairy substitutes. Pic: ©GettyImages/AlexPro9500

Related tags Fda Dairy alternatives Non-Dairy Milk

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. released a statement on Thursday detailing the agency’s plans to review and modernize the standards of identity for US dairy products.

The dairy industry has been battling the rise in popularity of plant-based dairy alternatives, often labeled as ‘milk’, ‘cheese’ and ‘yogurt’ despite their lack of dairy ingredients. Almond ‘milk’, soy ‘milk’ and vegan ‘cheese’ brands are all capitalizing on a market of health-conscious consumers looking for more options.

The US has been traditionally relaxed on enforcing any label restrictions for referring to a dairy-free product with traditional dairy terms, but a statement from the FDA indicates that this may be about to change.

Gottlieb acknowledged that plant-based dairy alternatives is an area that “needs greater clarity”​ to better ensure the safety of consumers because “some of these products can vary widely in their nutritional content… when compared to traditional milk.”

Public health issues

According to Gottlieb, there have been public health consequences as a result of plant-based alternatives. Young children can develop the disease kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition, following the consumption of rice-based beverages. A toddler was also diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency disease rickets after consuming soy-based beverages rather than cow’s milk, he said. 

The FDA plans to investigate whether consumers “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.”

The process for reviewing the FDA’s dairy identity standards will be a public one in order to better understand the way consumers perceive these products and if they are being misled.

The agency also plans to examine its own enforcement tactics, admitting that “it's not appropriate to unilaterally change our regulatory approach if we have a history of non-enforcement.”

Feedback sought

Modernization of the FDA’s standards of identity for dairy will start immediately by gathering stakeholder feedback. Throughout the next year, it will likely release a new compliance policy that outlines the enforcement approach.

Gottlieb also emphasized the FDA’s interest in modifying the standards of identity in other categories, asking for public feedback and updates on “food technology, nutritional science, fortification practices and marketing trends”​ to better serve consumers.

“At the FDA, we have a unique chance to empower individuals who are using nutrition to improve their health,”​ he said.

“We'll continue to look for new ways to promote industry innovation and provide flexibility to encourage food manufacturers to produce products with more healthful attributes.”

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