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'Milk' labels rankle industry

Western United Dairymen files complaint with FDA over 'soy yogurt'


Capital Press

Dairy producers have filed another complaint with the Food and Drug Administration to stop the use of dairy terms on the labels of plant-based products, the latest in a series of complaints over the last 13 years.

The Western United Dairymen organization has filed a complaint with FDA requesting the agency take immediate action to stop the use of the name "yogurt" in the labeling of certain products.

The organization's latest complaint targets "soy yogurt" that is being marketed alongside dairy yogurt in the refrigerated dairy cases at local supermarkets.

"These products were being displayed in a fashion so as to mislead and confuse consumers as it is labeled as a 'soy milk' based product," the complaint states.

"We would hope FDA would act quickly to halt consumers being misled," said Michael Marsh, Western United's CEO.

"The FDA is reviewing the petition and will respond directly to the petitioner," FDA Public Affairs Officer Theresa Eisenman said in an email response to Capital Press.

Marsh said the problem is much bigger than one product.

The fact that FDA has not acted promptly in the past has resulted in a proliferation of nondairy products that are falsely labeled, he said.

National Milk Producers Federation has filed similar complaints with the FDA.

NMPF first approached FDA with concerns over soy beverages using dairy terms on the label in 2000, and FDA did nothing as far as enforcement actions, said Jamie Jonker, NMPF's vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.

Seeing that FDA wasn't going to act, he said marketers pushed the envelope further and further. "Milk" started showing up on more beverages made from such foods as soy, hemp, nuts, potatoes and rice.

The use of dairy terms has crept into other products mislabeled as yogurt, cheese, ice cream, sour cream and others, he said.

"Basically every dairy product has an imitation dairy product," he said.

NMPF renewed its complaint to FDA three years ago, listing several hundred specific products that it says are mislabeled. Those products don't meet the standard of identity for milk and mislead the public into to thinking they are the nutritional equivalent of milk, he said.

FDA has not taken any action and has indicated the issue is not a priority for the agency, he said.

"They have not given us a good answer why they're not enforcing what they are legally bound to enforce," he said.

"FDA's guidance has been that terms such as 'soy milk,' 'almond milk,' etc., do not meet standards to be identified as milk. This is an active issue that FDA continues to address," FDA's Eisenman said.

Western United filed complaints in 2001, 2002 and 2003 over the labeling of "soy milk" beverages and received no response from FDA, not even that the agency was addressing the issue, Marsh said.

"I would assert dairy farmers have suffered as a result of FDA not enforcing regulations, he said.

Marsh said the drop in fluid milk sales coincided with the proliferation of these mislabeled nondairy products.

Marketers of those products want to use the word "milk" because it carries an ambiance of wholesome and nutritious, he said.

Those plant-based products don't even have to be refrigerated but are stocked in the dairy case to compete with milk, he said.


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