Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. After more than 40 years of nothing, the FDA did something on plant-based beverage labeling, but it wasn’t enough. Even though the agency finally acknowledged that consumers are confused about the nutritional content of plant-based beverages that masquerade as dairy products in their packaging, it still allows them to use the word milk, albeit with new disclaimers. That’s made the DAIRY PRIDE Act, led by our guest Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, all the more important. She reintroduced the legislation in the Senate at the end of February. A House companion bill is expected shortly, and with the stage set it’s time for DAIRY PRIDE to become law. Senator Baldwin is in her second term representing Wisconsin in the US Senate, where she is a leader on health and agricultural issues. Thank you for joining us, Senator Baldwin.
Senator Tammy Baldwin: It’s a pleasure to join you.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Here’s the state of play. FDA has released proposed guidance on the labeling of plant-based beverages that appears to try to give something to each side of this debate, acceptance of plant, we’ll put them in scare quotes, “milks” on one hand, but disclosure requirements on the other. What do you think of the FDA’s guidance
Senator Tammy Baldwin: Now, I think the FDA is not enforcing its own rules. They’re going to continue to allow mislabeled imitation products to be on the market. And nobody wants to keep anyone from having an almond beverage or an oat beverage or a soy beverage, but they shouldn’t be able to use these highly-defined dairy terms like milk or yogurt or cream or cheese. And I would just tell you that Wisconsin farmers work so hard to meet the FDA standards of nutrition and quality. They can’t put the word milk on the side of a carton of milk unless they meet those standards. It is not fair for plant-based products to be able to say they’re milk when they don’t meet those standards at all.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You point out dairy is playing by the rules. Is this a competitive disadvantage for dairy farmers?
Senator Tammy Baldwin: There’s a lot of challenges and hits that the dairy industry has taken in the last many years, everything from Mother Nature and extreme weather events to trade issues and tariffs to fluctuating feed costs and the inability to control the price they get per hundred weight. We don’t need to pile on. And I think that when you look at the average dairy case in a grocery store, you see all of these imitation products that claim to be some form of milk. I think every bit matters, and I’m working hard for Wisconsin dairy farmers by trying to protect dairy’s good name, frankly, from these imitation products.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And what does this mean for consumers, the current situation we have on grocery shelves?
Senator Tammy Baldwin: I think what it means first is use of the word milk for products that are plant-based implies, in my mind, a nutritional equivalency that simply doesn’t exist. They’re basically saying this should be an alternative or a substitute for milk. And there should not be a presumption on the part of the consumer that there’s a nutritional equivalency. But when you use the word milk or other dairy terms that have a meaning that is defined in regulation, a standard, a standard of identity, I think it creates that implication that’s not there.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So this all points to what’s been the main congressional vehicle for action on this issue, and that’s the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which you have introduced in the US Senate. What would the act do to change this context and why is it necessary?
Senator Tammy Baldwin: It shouldn’t be necessary to tell the Food and Drug Administration to simply do its job, right? It’s already the law. You should be enforcing it. But frankly, that’s why it’s necessary. And this recently released guidance from the FDA that does not compel the plant-based imitations and imposters to stop using dairy’s good name necessitates and creates a higher sense of urgency for the DAIRY PRIDE Act. Basically, the legislation would give these mislabeled products a time horizon to remove the dairy terms like milk or cheese or yogurt from their branding. And there’s many alternative terms they can use to describe their products. And then it would finally force FDA to enforce their own rules.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Got to ask the sausage making question. It’s a closely divided Congress, different partisan control in each chamber. What’s the path for a piece of legislation like this to pass this Congress?
Senator Tammy Baldwin: First of all, I’ll start by saying that this is a very bipartisan piece of legislation, and I am proud to have introduced it with even more bipartisan original co-sponsors this year. And many of the folks that I’m joining forces with are going to have significant input as we draft a new farm bill, which is something that I expect to get completed this calendar year. So that’s certainly one area that we can look towards. We also have funding bills for the Food and Drug Administration, and that would certainly be another opportunity to look at this type of legislation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Nobody’s going to be shocked that a senator from Wisconsin is going to be supporting pro-dairy legislation, but you represent a broad constituency, and you have a broad portfolio in the Senate. How does this all fit together?
Senator Tammy Baldwin: Well, I was talking before about just the multiple challenges that dairy farmers face, and I’m particularly thinking of smaller and medium-sized family farms, operations that have been handed down generation to generation, but so many of which are on the brink of it not being a sustainable business. And we don’t want to lose any more of these great dairy farms, but there’s so many challenges that we have to take a multifaceted approach. And DAIRY PRIDE is just one of many things that I’ve championed for the dairy industry.
Another one that I’m very proud of is the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative, which allows the smaller and medium-sized farms to either get technical assistance or apply for grants to increase efficiencies, lower their input costs or add value to their product on farm. Or small processors can apply for grants to do similar types of activities. We’ve seen a lot of really brilliant ideas get funded and folks be able to improve the profitability of their operations. So that’s another area where I’ll continue to be a champion for the dairy industry, and particularly Wisconsin’s smaller and medium-sized farms.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We’ve been speaking with Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin on the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which ensures integrity in labeling and is must-pass legislation this Congress. Thank you so much for your time.
Senator Tammy Baldwin: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: To comment on the FDA’s guidance and learn more about this issue, visit our website nmpf.org and click on the red button in the middle of the page. And for more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, and Amazon Music under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.