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The Growing Demand to Defend Dairy’s Undeniably Good Name

May 31, 2017

After years of frustrating inaction by government regulators who have failed to protect the integrity of dairy food labels, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can no longer ignore the growing demands that it enforce its own regulations against fake dairy foods. This is a welcome development for the entire dairy chain, which for decades has done a slow burn as the FDA turned a deaf ear to our complaints that standards of identity for products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are being violated by an expanding list of plant-based imitators that are undeniably not dairy foods.

A welcome indication that our effort to challenge the mislabeling of dairy imitators has reached a tipping point is the passage of a resolution at last month’s biennial meeting of the National Conference of Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS).  As FDA officials gathered in Grand Rapids to consult on milk safety issues with state milk regulators and industry groups like NMPF, the conference voted unanimously to ask the FDA to work with them to ensure the proper use of milk product labeling terms.  State officials have witnessed the same concerning trend all of us in the dairy community have seen:  when the regulatory cop is not on the beat, clever marketers will capitalize on that void and violate long-standing food labeling standards by marketing almond “milk," soy “cheese” and rice “yogurt.”  And when the latest “milks” are coming from pulverized quinoa, algae and hemp, it’s past time something needs to be done.

Through the NCIMS resolution, state regulators delivered a clear message that they need federal assistance in the supervision of all products utilizing standardized dairy terms.  This wake-up call to FDA not only should generate clarity for regulators and dairy marketers; ultimately, it also will benefit consumers, who face an increasingly bewildering assortment of imitation dairy products, all wanting to bask in milk’s halo without offering the same consistent level of nutrition.

This same concern is behind efforts on Capitol Hill to pass the Dairy Pride Act, which was introduced in the Senate and House earlier this year.  The DPA is Congress’s expression of distress about FDA’s passivity in the face of an explosion of alt-dairy foods that are in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations.  The Dairy Pride Act doesn’t change those standards of identity; it merely requires the FDA to enforce what’s already on the books.  We’ve been working closely on a bipartisan basis with lawmakers to move the DPA forward. (You can use our website to send a letter to Congress in support of the measure). And I was greatly encouraged by the recent endorsement of the DPA by the American Cheese Society.  “Cultured nut products” calling themselves cheese is yet another disturbing trend that defenders of real dairy foods need to work together to challenge.

Beyond these two important developments, what’s been fascinating to see is how the makers of the plant-based imitators are responding to this pressure.  On the one hand, they’ve dissed the Dairy Pride Act, and the need for FDA to take enforcement action.  But at the same time, they appear to be feeling the heat. Just a few weeks ago they held an industry meeting to review the potential compliance challenges their products may have with FDA’s standards of identity.  Despite their cheeky public disregard of FDA policy, these fake food marketers know full well that they are playing fast and loose with labeling regulations in a manner that exposes them to potential legal liability. They appear to recognize that a continued reliance on FDA to do nothing is a shaky strategy, placing their brands in jeopardy going forward.

So what’s the end game here?  Certainly, there’s a market for dairy alternatives that, while small on a volume basis, is going to be filled by some non-dairy beverages.  We have never contended that consumers should be denied that choice.  But the purpose of government food standards is to prevent false and misleading labeling.  Co-opting the name, imagery and packaging of real milk, while not offering the same nutritional content, is absolutely false and misleading marketing. Other countries actually do a much better job of enforcing milk labeling terminology, which is why terms such as “almondmilk” and “soy milk” are not found on plant beverages sold in the European Union, the United Kingdom and Canada. Plant-based imitators in those places have found other ways to label their products.

One big irony is that that if a dairy processor did what purveyors of these fake milks are doing – mixing dried dairy powders (like whey and lactose) with water and selling it in the dairy case as “milk” – consumer advocates and the FDA would be howling about such a deception. Real milk is undeniably dairy. The imitators may try hard to deny their products’ origins through clever formulations and splashy packaging, but the FDA needs to deny them the use of dairy names.