Survey: Consumers want 'milk' rules enforced

A new survey done for the dairy industry shows most consumers want the Food and Drug Administration in enforce its rules on the use of dairy names for plant-based products.

A majority of respondents in a consumer survey think the Food and Drug Administration should enforce its regulation that would restrict use of the term “milk” to animal products.

In its decades-long campaign to get FDA to prohibit the use of dairy terms on plant-based products such as soy milk, the National Milk Producers Federation put the question to the public and liked the results.

The issue is FDA’s lack of enforcement of its own standard of identity for dairy foods and whether consumers are aware that plant-based alternatives might not be nutritionally equivalent to dairy foods.

The national survey found the majority of consumers want FDA to enforce its regulation and prohibit makers of plant-based beverages  from using the term “milk” on their product labels.

The margin in favor of enforcement showed strong support from consumers, Alan Bjerga, NMPF senior vice president of communications, said.

Conducted by Ipsos, a global market research and consulting firm, the survey found 61 percent of respondents think FDA should restrict the terminology to dairy products and 23 percent did not. Sixteen percent were uncertain.

The issue is twofold. On the one hand, it’s about fairness and transparency in the marketplace. On the other, it’s about public health because some consumers don’t know that dairy imitators aren’t nutritionally equivalent to real dairy products, Bjerga said.

That can lead to parents feeding their children inferior products they think are equivalent to dairy, resulting in adverse health outcomes, he said.

FDA is seeking public comment in that regard in its attempt to modernize standards of identity to promote public health by helping consumers make more informed decisions.

In their comment to FDA, the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and the Council for Pediatric Nutrition Professionals said the misguided substitution of a plant-based “milk” for cow’s milk, without adequate compensation for nutrients not supplied in those products, can put a child at risk.

“Such product use places children at risk of slowed growth, protein-calorie malnutrition, failure to thrive and specific nutrient deficiencies … compromising current and future health and development,” the groups stated.

The survey also found 49 percent of respondents said the non-dairy products should not be allowed to use the term “milk” in light of nutritional differences.

The survey also asked about consumer confidence in U.S. food policy given imitation dairy foods in other countries cannot be labeled as a type of milk and that the U.S. has the same policy but doesn’t enforce it. Forty-four percent of respondents said that made them less confident.

The responses to both questions illustrate there is a problem out there and consumers are concerned, Bjerga said.

“FDA has a standard of identity for dairy products, it’s on the books, and it’s not being followed,” he said.

The dairy industry has created a product it’s proud of, and generations of dairy farmers have worked hard to build trust and goodwill with consumers and establish a positive association with the term “milk,” he said.

The plant-based industry knows that and that’s why it’s using dairy terms, but those products don’t have the same qualities. It’s misleading, and it’s freeloading off dairy’s reputation, he said.

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