Group supports using dairy terms in labeling alternative foods

The Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether and how to restrict the use of dairy terms such as “milk” in labeling drinks made from soybeans, nuts and other commodities.

The Good Food Institute, which advocates plant-based and lab-grown alternatives to animal products, has filed comments with FDA supporting the use of dairy terminology in labeling alternative foods.

FDA’s standards of identity — including regulations for using dairy terminology, which FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently announced he intends to enforce — are part of what FDA wants to address in its new multi-year Nutrition Innovation Strategy.

Much of the discussion has revolved around the use of dairy terms on alternative dairy products such as almond milk.

GFI is calling for a common-sense approach that does not impede the introduction or sale of alternative foods.

“As more Americans show an interest in consuming plant-based foods, it is important that the channels of innovation remain clear for new plant-based products,” GFI said in its comments to FDA.

New foods and foods adopted across the globe are proliferating the market, yet existing FDA standards of identity largely deal with traditional American food — often made from a limited set of traditional ingredients such as wheat, dairy and eggs, GFI said.

Historically, standards of identity have never been understood to prevent new products from referring to standardized terms in their marketing or labeling. They were mainly intended to address fraud and economic adulteration, GFI said.

“A new product with its own clear and distinct identity does not present such a risk. Yet some voices in industry have advocated for FDA to weaponize identity standards against innovative products, contrary to this historical understanding,” GFI said.

It’s pretty clear consumers of alternative foods understand what they’re getting, Nigel Barrella, a private attorney who helped GFI formulate its comments to FDA, told Capital Press.

The government should not attempt to regulate common language consumers use to identify these products, he said.

The labeling issue didn’t get much attention when soymilk was kind of a hippie food sold in health food stores, he said, but it became a bigger issue with the dairy industry when alternative milk products started taking a significant portion of dairy sales.

The issue has nothing to do with protecting consumers and everything to do with squelching competition, he said.

“We think it’s anticompetitive and unconstitutional. It’s almost Orwellian for the benefit of one industry that we’re going to limit the term ‘milk’ to certain favored products,” he said.

National Milk Producers Federation, however, said GFI’s assertions are false.

NMPF has been raising these concerns since the 1970s, Alan Bjerga, NMPF senior vice president of communications, said.

“The difference now is that FDA is interested in picking this up,” he said.

GFI’s claim about “weaponizing” the standards to protect market share is overblown. It’s about truth in labeling and transparency, he said.

Dairy has a health halo that makers of alternative products are trying to exploit for their own benefit. NMPF isn’t saying anyone can or can’t make those products, which sell fine in Canada and Europe where they aren’t labeled “milk,” he said.

The concern is that consumers think they are nutritionally equivalent to dairy products, and that could present a health risk. Those health implications and transparent and accurate labeling is what FDA wants to address, he said.

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