NMPF’s Bjerga on Next Steps on Plant-Based Labeling


NMPF Senior Vice President for Communications Alan Bjerga discusses next steps in the effort to bring transparency to plant-based beverage labeling in an interview with the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. While the FDA’s proposed guidance accepts dairy’s core argument — that beverages that falsely call themselves “milk” falsely imply a similar nutritional profile — the acceptance of such terms, even with disclaimers, still falls short of recognizing FDA’s own standards of identity and ending the confusion once and for all. That makes efforts such as congressional passage of the DAIRY PRIDE Act all the more essential, he said.

Butter and Cheese Keep Dairy’s Rise Constant

While we won’t know until Friday whether U.S. per-capita dairy consumption will officially rise for the seventh time in eight years, we do know from preliminary data that domestic use of butter and cheese reached records in 2021. Then again, that’s far from a surprise.


Though other dairy products have had their ups and downs (mostly up), for the past decade butter and cheese have been Old Reliables, with neither ever seeing consumption decline a single time. Their rising popularity has offset drops in fluid-milk consumption (the typical, and inaccurate, trope that anti-dairy activists use to pronounce “death” upon the industry) and is a big part of the industry’s continued success and bright future.

Dairy, as an industry, is in constant evolution, from advances in science to innovations in sustainability. But throughout, “bring on the butter” and “more cheese, please” have been continual refrains.  The data shows it, and there’s no reason think those words won’t echo for years to come.

Dairy Wins on Facts in Looming ‘Lab-Based’ Labeling Battle

The marketers are at it again, breathlessly promoting “innovation” as a storm of startups gather, each hoping to cash out their venture capital before their business models crash and burn. It’s happened in “meat,” it’s happened among some plant-based food manufacturers, and the consumers are always the ones left holding the bag, with nutritional needs that aren’t met and a Wild West government attitude toward food labels that creates confusion over what a food is and isn’t.

That’s why we’re warily watching the rise of so-called lab-based dairy – the dressing up of pre-existing fermentation technology as innovation, all the better to bilk customers with inferior, overpriced goods. To avoid the frustration of the past four decades, in which plant-based imposters have proliferated as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration turns a blind eye to its own rules on dairy terms, it’s ever more important for the agency now to create clear labeling guidelines for such products, making clear distinctions to protect consumer health and safety, and avoid past mistakes.

First, a primer on what companies such as Perfect Day, which advertises itself as providing “Sustainable Animal-Free Dairy and Protein,” provide. Using “precision fermentation” technology, an imitator can duplicate an individual dairy protein – for example, a single whey protein among numerous proteins found in natural whey – and reproduce it at a commercial scale without using its natural source of creation, an animal.

The technology isn’t new: In fact, the dairy industry pioneered it, using fermentation to produce calf rennet for cheesemaking. But through the wonders of marketing and a loose definition of what “dairy” is, startups are creating the impression that they’re using cutting-edge technology to develop a true dairy product. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Here’s why. In food science, an important principle is this: We don’t know what we don’t know. Appreciation for food’s complexity – how nutrients interact, how much the food-creation process matters – has advanced from the 20th century, when cereal marketers could slap “Fortified With 8 Vitamins and Minerals” and deem sugary breakfast products a healthy food.

Milk isn’t just a single synthesized protein or a simple collection of nutrients. It’s a complex biologic product evolved over millennia, with nutritional and health benefits created via innumerable interactions within an animal that only the arrogant and foolish would claim it can perfectly reproduce. While in a sense, these lab-synthesized products come closer to the mark than plant-based fakes – at least they have overlapping strands of some matching DNA – a single dairy protein is no more “milk” than a steering wheel is a car. These products do not come anywhere near replicating natural dairy.

And, given the necessity of the animal to the process, they never will. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s stated standard of identity for milk as “the lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows” isn’t the result of industry lobbying or an outdated conception of dairy. It reflects a solid grounding in scientific reality, one that isn’t changed by a fermentation vat and a misleading marketing pitch.

About those vats. Beyond the simple scientific refutation of synthesized, lab-based products as dairy, it’s important to note that the purported advantages of these products, specifically regarding their sustainability, can be wildly overstated.

It’s true that dairy cows contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, for the same reasons you do — they eat, drink, and use land. But a well-managed, 21st century dairy also fits well into an environmental lifecycle that includes using a cow’s four-chambered stomach to convert plants that are inedible for humans into milk and dairy products we can consume and enjoy, as well as creating byproducts that can displace fossil fuels. That’s why we’re so excited about and confident in our sector’s highly achievable Net Zero Initiative.

Lab-based dairy sustainability is less certain. What’s the electric bill for the industrial bioreactor used to make small product batches of casein into larger ones? What’s the carbon footprint needed for the large-scale reproduction of a single protein, versus the effort used by an animal that can perfectly create every single necessary substance on its own? And what are the prospects of producing at competitive cost and scale in a factory what cows produce naturally and is sold relatively inexpensively? If the benefit exists, where are the studies that verify it? And who funded them?

All of this, and more, argues for extremely clear labeling of technologically primitive dairy-protein replicants sold in the marketplace that, without regulatory intervention, are guaranteed to mislead and confuse consumers more than they benefit them. We’ve seen that in the proliferation of mislabeled plant-based products. A factory-synthesized dairy protein, for example, can still trigger milk allergies. But what choice might a consumer with such allergies, upon seeing an “Animal Free” marketing claim, make? And in the real world – the one where consumers eat food, not DNA sequences – what’s the safest, most honest way to inform them that what they consume is nutritionally doing what dairy naturally does, even when we ourselves don’t necessarily know exactly what’s creating that experience?

Here’s how: By relying on clear labeling guidelines that have existed for decades and are grounded in well-established science and consumer understanding.

In some ways, the looming labeling battle over industrially duplicated “dairy” may seem more difficult than the plant-based challenge. But from another angle, the need for labeling integrity is obvious and the arguments clear. Dairy has been, is today, and always will be, the product of an animal-based production system. It’s what makes it what it is. Despite the attempts to blur these crucial distinctions that are already under way and promise to proliferate, that must always be kept top-of-mind. We certainly will. And we’ll do everything we can to make sure that FDA, members of Congress and consumers do too.

Jim Mulhern

President and CEO, National Milk Producers Federation

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

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.

Plant-Based = Higher Cost, Lower Quality. Be Sure to Tell Your Barista

Vegan activists like to hand-wring from time to time about surcharges to add their favorite plant-based beverage to their coffee drinks, citing all sorts of reasons behind the alleged injustice. Here’s a simpler explanation: Plant-based additives cost more because … they cost more.

Higher costs and lower quality are hallmarks of the “innovation” behind the proliferation of non-dairy products that trade on dairy terms in an attempt to win consumer favor. The lower nutritional content of plant-based beverages is well-established, with some almond brands having one-eighth the protein of dairy and none of them having the unique blend of 13 essential nutrients that set dairy apart. But here’s a quick refresher on the cost side of the equation:

This is year-end data of the cost of a gallon of milk (all varieties) compared to alternatives, year-end 2021. Now you can see why marketers are so enthusiastic about selling highly processed oat water.

Here’s a comparison for yogurt. Not a surprise, when you look at the ingredients label of a pint of yogurt versus a plant-based alternative.

And here’s the one product in which dairy doesn’t win on price, though an asterisk should be involved. Admittedly, a pound of “Imitation Cheese” is more pocketbook-friendly than true, FDA-standard-of-identity compliant cheese – a fact that undoubtedly delights “cheese-type product” lovers everywhere.

But it’s worth noting that even imitation cheese usually contains some dairy – just not in a way that meets cheese standards of identity. Vegan varieties, on the other hand, don’t just function terribly – they cost more than twice as much as real cheese and almost four times as much as the cheaper imitations.

Why does this matter? Because in their long-running efforts to disparage dairy, opponents sometimes use bad-faith arguments to call out companies that are acting rationally when what they really need to do is a little math. Complicated and often expensive ingredients, far-flung supply chains, and high advertising costs all feed into the more-expensive structure of plant-based alternatives (and let’s not even get into profit margins).

The point is, if you’re ever in line for a latte and someone in front of you complains about paying more for an almond addition, you can always point out that their choice may cost more money because … it costs more money. Then, add some whole milk to your beverage, for emphasis. It will bring a smile to your day – and information to someone else’s.