Got nut juice?
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced last week that his agency will crack down on plant-based milk alternatives soon. The FDA defines “milk” as an animal by-product, not a plant product. So packaging that refers to these plant-based alternatives as dairy are in violation of labeling regulations. Dr. Gottlieb acknowledged in his comments during a summit in Washington, DC that an “almond doesn’t lactate.”
Milk alternatives, in particular, have become increasingly popular with consumers. The proliferation makes it easier for those with allergies to find an alternative. But some consumers choose these products based on the belief they’re healthier than actual dairy products, though that probably isn’t true.
The dairy industry has very vocally urged the FDA to enforce its already-existing labeling regulations and put an end what it considers deceptive practices. Many dairy associations around the country, including the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), were pleasantly surprised by Dr. Gottlieb’s comments, no doubt feeling as though their pleas for action have finally been heard.
“After years of inaction in response to our complaints about these labeling violations, 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. “The marketing of non-dairy imitators must comply with federal standards of identity, and consumers should not be misled that these products have the same nutrition as real milk, yogurt, cheese and other actual dairy products.”
Over the last few years, even members of Congress have petitioned FDA to take some action to correct the marketing of plant-based alternatives as dairy products. Those requests were largely ignored. Dr. Gottlieb’s promise to actually do something is quite a policy shift.
Legally speaking, I applaud FDA’s move. The liquid coming from these other products by definition isn’t milk. And we have regulations governing these types of labels to protect consumers. While I fully realize no one actually thinks almond milk is the same as cow’s milk, using the word “milk” as part of the name gives the consumer a certain impression of the product. That’s deceptive, whether any ill will is meant by it or not.
I also think the FDA should do more to enforce its own regulations. We’ve seen a proliferation of misleading non-GMO labels on products that contain no GMO counterparts, yet FDA does nothing. If the general public is going to have confidence in government agencies and oversight, those regulations must actually be enforced. Otherwise, the anarchy that follows promotes an environment where charlatans and quacks can thrive. If the FDA won’t protect you, they will.
Practically speaking, I worry whether this will have a positive conclusion. While the dairy industry’s concerns are valid, I’m worried consumers might see it as “big ag” tactics to suppress the plant-based alternative companies. Given that risk, does it really make a difference if the packaging says “almond juice” instead of “almond milk?” Maybe the problem is more about marketing than anything else.
Either way, I plan on following FDA’s actions on this closely. Hopefully, this will signal a change at FDA and the agency will start to pay attention to the ridiculous amount of labeling shenanigans taking place in grocery stores across the country.