National Milk Producers Federation is pleased FDA has finally recognized the need to increase its scrutiny of companies using dairy terminology in labeling plant-based products imitating dairy. But it doesn’t like the agency’s announced timeline of a year to start enforcing its own labeling laws.
At an FDA hearing on Thursday focused on modernizing food standards of identity, NMPF argued the agency should first start enforcing existing standards on products whose labels are false and misleading.
“For far too long, standardized dairy terms have been co-opted by the marketers of fake milk and other alternative products,” Tom Balmer NMFP executive vice president, said in testimony.
Imposters, such as almond milk, soy cheese and rice yogurt, bask in dairy’s halo by using familiar terms to invoke positive traits — including the significant levels of various nutrients typically associated with real dairy foods, he said.
“This is a marketing gimmick, and a clever one,” he said.
Such products not only lack ingredients specified by standards, they frequently fall short in expected sensory characteristics and are nearly always less nutritious, he said.
“They are marketed and merchandized to resemble real milk and dairy products in all ways possible, and many consumers don’t realize that they’re being shortchanged,” he said.
Over the last 20 years, NMPF and its members have made repeated requests for FDA to take enforcement action on misbranded imitation dairy products, with FDA continually claiming the issue is not an agency priority, NMPF has stated.
“It seems inconsistent to talk about modernizing standards to improve nutrition and assure accurate information to consumers when FDA has been allowing nutritionally inferior products to use standardized terms like ‘milk’ for so long,” Balmer said.
“So instead of continuing to look the other way, let’s start by enforcing current standards of identity and then talk about potential improvements,” he said.
In a statement to the press on Thursday morning, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said FDA intends to look at the issue in relation to public health consequences.
He cited a case where feeding rice-based beverages to young children resulted in a disease called kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition, and another case of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk.
“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘milk,’ we intend to look at whether parents may 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,” he said.
The agency will also look into how it has been enforcing regulations with respect to food names and FDA’s standard of identity for milk, he said.
“As a regulatory agency, it’s not appropriate to unilaterally change our regulatory approach if we have a history of non-enforcement. We also need to closely consider the potential First Amendment issue related to the different uses of these terms,” he said.