FDA bears down on dairy substitutes

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has announced that he will leave his job. He led the agency to study the use of dairy terms to label non-dairy products.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has taken the first step in his intention to enforce the agency’s standard of identity for dairy products, addressing the labeling of plant-based foods with dairy terms.

FDA has concerns the labeling of those products might lead consumers to believe they have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products, he said in issuing a request for information in the Federal Register on Thursday.

Those products are sometimes packaged similarly to dairy products and sold in the dairy section of grocery stores, he said.

“However, these plant-based products may not be satisfactory substitutes for all uses of dairy. And some may not be nutritionally equivalent,” he said in a press statement.

“We’re interested to know if consumers are aware of and understand the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products — and between these products and dairy — when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families,” he said.

National Milk Producers Federation, which has long tried to get FDA to enforce its labeling regulations on imitation dairy products, welcomes the agency’s action.

Hopefully, FDA will finally curtail the misleading labeling practices of plant-based foods imitating real dairy products, Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO, said in a press statement.

“We are pleased that after all these years of engagement with FDA, the agency is finally addressing our concerns about how these plant-based products are inappropriately marketed to consumers,” he said.

FDA’s request for public comment recognizes many of the same issues NMPF has brought to light over the last four decades — that plant-based products are packaged, merchandized and sold in the same way as real dairy foods, yet provide fewer nutrients and therefore cannot be considered suitable substitutes, he said.

However, NMPF’s concerns are not just about nutritional equivalence and the implications for public health, he said.

“A standardized dairy food, like milk, yogurt or butter, is defined by its inherent characteristics including how and when it’s sourced and its sensory attributes and performance properties,” he said.

The American Dairy Coalition also appreciates Gottlieb’s action.

“Consumers rely on product labels to form expectations of the products they purchase,” Laurie Fischer, the coalition’s CEO, told Capital Press.

It’s important to ensure consumers can quickly, clearly and accurately compare and contrast the nutritional content of the products they choose to feed their families, she said.

“While plant-based drinks may provide something that looks similar to dairy products, their nutritional content is far from equal,” she said.

In addition, a variety of other ingredients with unfamiliar names are routinely added to most of these alternative drinks, she said.

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