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FDA Head Announces Intent to Regulate Dairy Terms; Senate Rejects Measure to Impede FDA Action

August 7, 2018

After a years-long effort by NMPF to halt the misleading labeling practices of imitation dairy foods, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month acknowledged that “almonds don’t lactate” and said his agency intends to enforce dairy standards following a period of public comment.

Prior to the start of a July 26 FDA hearing on government nutrition and labeling standards, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a lengthy statement explaining that the agency plans to address the deceptive marketing tactics utilized by makers of plant- and seed-based imitation products. Gottlieb recognized that the issue needs greater clarity, acknowledging that plant-based copycats are not the foods that have been standardized under the name “milk” and often vary widely in their nutrition.

“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as ‘milk,’ we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” Gottlieb said.

“Dr. Gottlieb’s announcement that the agency is intending to act on this issue is very encouraging,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of NMPF. “This issue is not just an arcane dispute but has significant public health implications because dairy imitators lack any consistent nutritional profile.”

During the FDA’s hearing last month, NMPF reiterated its insistence that any modernization of food standards should start with enforcing ones that already exist for products like milk, cheese and yogurt. Consumers use these standards to make informed purchasing decisions and “expect a certain level of product performance in return,” said Tom Balmer, NMPF’s executive vice president.

“[Alternative] products not only lack ingredients specified by the standards, they frequently fall short in expected characteristics like mouthfeel, taste and texture, and are nearly always less nutritious,” he testified.

NMPF also worked last week with a bipartisan coalition of senators to fend off an amendment that would have impeded the ability of FDA to enforce standards of identity.  Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jim Risch (R-ID) garnered an overwhelming amount of support to defeat, by a vote of 14-84, a proposed amendment to the fiscal year 2019 FDA appropriations bill that would have instructed the agency to severely limit any action against misleading dairy labeling practices.

“We fought this amendment because it would have undermined the decades-long policy, established by Congress, that FDA should regulate food names to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers,” said Mulhern.  “This vote should send a very strong message to food marketers who have long been ignoring FDA’s food labeling standards that those days are numbered. FDA now knows it has strong, bipartisan support in Congress in its efforts to assure a fair marketplace.”