'Milk' made from plants

Legislation introduced in Congress seeks to have the Food and Drug Administration enforce its rules on using dairy terms such as "milk" for other beverages.

National Milk Producers Federation has submitted a citizen petition to the Food and Drug Administration outlining how and why the agency should use its existing regulations to guide the use of dairy terms for plant-based products.

The petition is a roadmap for the next step the FDA should take in ending the violation of its standard of identity rules in the labeling of plant-based dairy alternatives, Alan Bjerga, NMPF senior vice president of communications, said in a conference call on the issue.

For years, drinks made from soybeans and other plant materials have been labeled “milk.”

NMPF has been vocal about the problem for decades regardless of food-consumption trends or food fads, he said.

“What’s different now is the FDA’s serious engagement on the issue,” he said.

The agency recently closed a public comment period on the matter, drawing more than 13,000 comments.

“The public interest in this issue alone, to us, illustrates further that the FDA needs to act,” he said.

There is anecdotal and survey evidence of consumer confusion over the nutritional content of dairy alternatives and concerns of adverse health effects in children as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, he said.

The petition “is meant to both aid and encourage the FDA to find a practical solution to the dairy labeling problem, one that is grounded in current law and addresses contemporary concerns,” he said.

FDA’s call for comment provided NMPF with another chance to explain the compelling need to provide resolution to the issue, Tom Balmer, NMPF executive vice president, said.

“We believe a comprehensive fix has been available all along. But FDA’s decades-long inaction has allowed marketplace chaos to grow exponentially,” he said.

NMPF has publicly stated many times that it is not trying to keep dairy imitators out of the marketplace but insists that those food products follow the law, he said.

“We believe it’s possible to use existing regulations and with some modification produce common-sense labeling that will provide everyone with truthful, transparent and reasonable options,” he said.

For non-dairy foods using standardized dairy terms but are nutritionally inferior to the dairy foods they reference, NMPF is urging FDA to immediately enforce existing imitation labeling regulations.

An imitation food could avoid being labeled as such simply by not using any standardized dairy term. It could also avoid the imitation labeling by stating on the label that it is inferior to the referenced product, he said.

For non-dairy substitutes that are not inferior to the referenced product, NMPF is urging FDA to immediately enforce existing rules that the product be labeled as a substitute or an alternative, such as “non-dairy yogurt.”

The petition also addresses the issue of plant-based companies’ First Amendment rights in using dairy terms, citing relevant case law that supports FDA enforcement of existing regulations based on the federal government’s interest in consumer health and market-based transparency.

“It’s important to note our approach does not advocate for any so-called ban. It simply relies on proper disclosure that allows for appropriate, truthful, non-misleading messaging,” Balmer said.

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