After FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced his resignation earlier this month, it’s been unclear how the dairy standards of identity review will continue. Gottlieb and the FDA spent several months collecting public comments that debated how plant-based dairy alternatives should have to label their products.
Farmers, organizations, brands and consumers on both sides of the aisle have weighed in. The FDA’s modernized standards may now take longer to come through, as Gottlieb leaves the department and the administration transitions to new leadership.
Forcing the FDA’s hand
On March 14, Senators Baldwin and Risch reintroduced the ‘‘Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act’’ to Congress, also known as the Dairy Pride Act. On Twitter, Baldwin called the bill bipartisan and commonsense.
“Dairy farmers in Wisconsin work hard every day to make sure that their milk meets high standards for nutritional value and quality. We need to stand up for them and protect dairy’s good name,” Baldwin said.
In a joint press release, the senators said,”Current [FDA] regulations define dairy products as being from dairy animals. Although existing federal regulations are clear, the FDA has not enforced these labeling regulations and the mislabeling of products as ‘milk’, ‘yogurt’ and ‘cheese’ has increased rapidly.”
They claim this hurts dairy farmers and leads to the “proliferation of mislabeled alternative products.” If passed, the bill would make it a requirement that the FDA “issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of mislabeled imitation dairy products within 90 days and require the FDA to report to Congress two years after enactment to hold the agency accountable for this update in their enforcement obligations.”
The Dairy Pride Act was first introduced to Congress in 2017 but did not pass. A group of senators supporting the bill wrote a letter to Gottlieb last week to “press the agency to move forward quickly to begin enforcing FDA’s Standards of Identity” because the Dairy Pride Act would require this if passed.
“Plant based products ought to be marketed based on their own characteristics and nutrient profiles, rather than using dairy’s good name, and established nutritional profile, to market products that are not standardized and do not meet the criteria of dairy terms set forth in the standards of identity,” the letter said.
The text of the Dairy Pride Act acknowledges the nutritional value of dairy and asserts that, “A food is a dairy product only if the food is, contains as a primary ingredient, or is derived from, the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more hooved mammals.”
Dairy pride and prejudice
The bill has received widespread support from dairy groups.
Brody Stapel, president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, said, “Misperceptions about non-dairy foods are real. The imitations confuse customers who rely on names and product packaging to make judgments about a food. These customers deserve transparency.”
"We thank Senator Baldwin for pushing to increase transparency for customers and fairness for dairy farm families and processors. We hope Congress moves quickly to approve this bill.”
John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said “When someone buys cheese, they’re expecting that product to have been made with real milk, not a nut or a bean. WCMA members support Senator Baldwin’s work to enforce labeling standards and help consumers make well-informed choices at the grocery store.”
Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda in Thorp, Wisconsin, said “Corporations are taking advantage of a movement pushing for an ‘ethical’ way to consume products, ironically, by making false and unsubstantiated claims about their products.”
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said “For too long, the FDA has turned a blind eye to the misbranding of imitation dairy products, despite the decades-old federal law that milk comes from animals, not vegetables or nuts. None of these imitators provides the same high quality and quantity of nutrition offered by real milk.”
But those in support of non-dairy products and their current labeling think the proposed restrictions are ‘unnecessary, costly and unconstitutional.’ In January the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) called it “a solution in search of a problem.”
“The marketplace disruption being pushed by the dairy lobby would hinder innovation, create untenable costs for our members, and ultimately be found unconstitutional, making the entire effort a waste of everybody’s time and resources,” PBFA said.