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.

The announcement that Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb will resign took a lot of people in the dairy industry by surprise. They saw him as someone who listened.

Leading the agency for less than two years, he announced on Tuesday he will be leaving FDA in the next month.

To the public, Gottlieb will be noted for his efforts to advance innovative treatments and more affordable drugs and confronting opioid addiction, tobacco usage and e-cigarette usage among youths.

In dairy circles, however, he will be remembered as the FDA chief who finally addressed what the industry considers deceptive labeling of imitation dairy products.

National Milk Producers Federation has been waging war against the use of dairy terminology on alternative products such as soy “milk” for 40 years, trying to get FDA to enforce its own standards of identity.

Gottlieb was the only FDA commissioner to listen, Alan Bjerga, NMPF senior vice president of communications, said.

“The issue is important to consumers and human health. He recognized that there was a problem,” he said.

The issue is as much about public health as it is fairness and transparency in the marketplace, he said.

Some consumers don’t know that dairy imitators aren’t nutritionally equivalent to real dairy products, a finding backed up by the American Academy of Pediatrics. That can lead to parents feeding their children inferior products they think are equivalent to dairy, resulting in adverse health effects, he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics raised the issue of confusion and resulting nutritional deficiencies in children in its recommendation that FDA reserve the “milk” label for traditional dairy products “to ensure that children receive the optimal nutrition they need to thrive.”

After decades of NMPF’s efforts to get FDA to understand the risks, Gottlieb brought it to light, he said.

FDA launched a public comment period in October to gauge consumers’ understanding of dairy alternatives to guide the agency’s labeling policies.

At that time, Gottlieb said FDA has concerns the labeling of those products might lead consumers to believe they have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products.

While his departure naturally raises a little concern, the issue is out there, Bjerga said.

“I don’t think it’s going to go away. It will continue to be on FDA’s radar. Scott Gottlieb made a crucial contribution on this issue, but the resolution of the issue is not dependent on Scott Gottlieb,” he said.

That said, NMPF has never had the ear of FDA before Gottlieb, and that extended to many issues, he said.

“We had a very positive relationship with the Scott Gottlieb FDA. We felt like we were listened to,” he said.

Gottlieb tweeted on Tuesday that “I know that the opportunity to serve in this role was a privilege.”

The Department of Health and Human Services released a statement on Gottlieb’s resignation but did not state a reason for his departure.

In his tweet, Gottlieb said, “There’s perhaps nothing that could pull me away from this role other than the challenge of being apart from my family for these past two years and missing my wife and three young children.”

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