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FDA Commissioners Agree: Nutrition’s a Problem for Plant-Based Faux Dairy

May 17, 2022

It’s easy to become numb to the over-polished signaling that often passes as discourse in Washington, but sometimes reading things closely reveals interesting nuggets that show how an official is weighing a decision or perceiving an issue.

Example: an exchange between FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin at a recent Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. Baldwin chairs the Senate subcommittee that sets spending levels at FDA — the sort of thing that would make an FDA commissioner pay attention. And when she asked him for his thoughts on how plant-based beverages that masquerade as dairy products should be labeled, he noted that when people think about dairy vs. plant-based beverages, they “are not very equipped to deal with what’s the nutritional value” of the products.

In other words, confusion over the nutritional values of dairy versus plant-based beverages is real.

This isn’t the first time an FDA commissioner has acknowledged the problem of nutritional confusion, which has gained attention well beyond the dairy farmers who create high-quality nutrition every day. From the American Academy of Pediatrics to the School Nutrition Association and others, concerns over the public-health impacts of consumers substituting dairy with nutritionally inferior plant-based products are widespread and well-known.

That’s why Califf’s predecessor, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said in his confirmation hearing that “clear, transparent, and understandable labeling for the American people” was necessary “so that they can make the appropriate decisions for their health and for their nutrition.” That’s why Hahn’s predecessor, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, expressed concern that consumers were being “misled” by plant-based beverages and asked whether consumers “who are using plant-based milk products by seeing the word ‘milk’ imputing a certain nutritional value into that beverage that they’re not deriving?”

And that’s why Gottlieb’s predecessor, who was … wait. Gottlieb’s predecessor was Califf. But you get the picture.

The problem of nutritional confusion, also borne out by consumer surveys, isn’t even controversial at FDA, at least not among its political leadership. The only thing that’s been controversial, apparently, is FDA staff doing something to address the problem. But hope springs eternal, as well as opportunities for action. With long-promised guidance on dairy terms and plant-based beverages due this summer, federal policy has a chance to align with the words of its top officials, by finally creating the labeling integrity consumers deserve.

Doing the wrong thing – essentially preserving the Wild West status quo of plant-based peddlers flouting the FDA’s own rules – will mean little, as federal courts have ruled that guidance policy pronouncements can’t replace regulation, and at the root of current regulation is FDA’s own standard of identity, which clearly identifies milk (the building block of all dairy products) as an animal product.

But doing the right thing – advocating for consumers, promoting transparency in labeling and reinforcing the nutritional importance of those standards – would help restore FDA’s credibility as a consumer advocate and its reputation for public health leadership. And let’s face it, FDA isn’t having the easiest time these days.

The path is clear. The door is open. All FDA needs to do is walk through it and fix what its leaders already know is a problem. And we know they know it. Because they’ve said it themselves.