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Likely Incoming FDA Chief Gives Hope That Fake-Milk Resolution May Be Near

December 10, 2019

No one – certainly not the National Milk Producers Federation – has ever said that victory in the long battle for labeling transparency of plant-based products that steal dairy terms will be simple to achieve. But encouraging signs are afoot, and we have tangible reason to believe that, with a likely new FDA commissioner who has stated his understanding of the issue’s importance, 2020 is set to be a pivotal year in this long-running debate.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee last week forwarded the nomination of Dr. Stephen Hahn to the full Senate for approval. The respected cancer researcher and university executive brings solid credentials to the agency, and his confirmation is expected. We believe his confirmation will provide strong leadership and direction to an agency that, understandably, has been less keen on resolving important issues without a full-fledged leader, which it’s been without since former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb left earlier this year.

But of course, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a lot on its plate, from opioids and teen vaping to food-safety inspections. Because of that, whether an issue is addressed or not isn’t always a matter of importance – it’s a matter of the agency’s priorities on which important issues are handled, and when. That’s always been where the agency has struggled in addressing dairy-term mislabeling. And that’s where the comments of the agency’s likely new leader give us hope.

During his Senate nomination hearing last month, Hahn showed, via a friendly exchange with HELP Committee member Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, that he understands the urgency of this issue, as more and more mislabeled plant-based beverages emerge, leading to more consumer deception about nutrition in the marketplace. Speaking with Sen. Baldwin, Hahn voiced his support for “clear, transparent, and understandable labeling for the American people.

“The American people need this so that they can make the appropriate decisions for their health and for their nutrition. I very much will look into this issue,” Hahn said, later adding he would “look at this as soon as I am confirmed.” Video of the exchange is here.

Now, to be clear, here’s what Dr. Hahn didn’t do in his remarks. He didn’t commit to solving the problem with transparent labels within 60 days of confirmation, as Sen. Baldwin urged. He also didn’t explicitly take a pro-transparency position. But those types of pledges aren’t to be expected in confirmation hearings, in which nominees tend to be non-committal in the interests of not being hemmed into positions before starting the job, especially on controversial issues.

An explicit embrace of our position was never going to come from that hearing, so there’s no surprise there. But what did come was an acknowledgment that plant-based product use of dairy terms is a problem that needs to be fixed – and that is light-years away from the lack of attention this issue has received from FDA for decades. Ever since then-Commissioner Gottlieb made his famous “almonds don’t lactate” remark in July 2018, we have worked hard to keep this issue on the public radar, through raising the issue in media and supporting your grass-roots efforts. Dr. Stephen Hahn’s awareness and commitment on the issue shows that those efforts are paying off.

That also means that now, more than ever, those efforts need to continue. We must keep reminding FDA that consumers need to know what their food and beverages are and what they’re not, and how transparency in labeling terminology is important to consumer understanding of nutritional content, just as the nutrition facts panel is. We also need to let the public know what our positions are, and what they are not – we support innovation and responsible competition, but we are opposed to products needlessly misleading consumers with false marketing just to make a buck.

We will remain leaders in this fight. We urge you to let FDA know that labeling transparency is an important public-health issue; to remind your neighbor that no, it’s not “milk” if it doesn’t come from a mammal; and to tell your lawmaker of the importance of the DAIRY PRIDE Act should FDA decide not to act. And of course, congratulate Dr. Stephen Hahn should he be confirmed in his new job – with a reminder to do what’s right regarding the use of dairy terms on labels. (You can find him on Twitter.)

As always, we’re optimistic that this issue will be resolved in consumers’ favor, with FDA putting an end to deceptive labeling.  Let’s seize this opportunity.