DOWN TO BUSINESS: Plant-based ‘milk’ labeling contentious

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DOWN TO BUSINESS – Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers doesn’t like the idea. But a New England medical professional, a self-described “long-time vegan,” does.

They’re among 300 responses submitted so far to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “draft guidance” on nutrition labeling for plant-based beverages that use “milk” in their names — think soy, almond, oat or myriad others — but are non-dairy.

The agency recommended last month that if “milk” is on a plant-based beverage container, a label should show a nutrient comparison to dairy milk. An offered suggestion: “Contains lower amounts of Vitamin D and calcium than milk.”

As you might imagine, posted reactions to the FDA proposal are mixed. Wisconsin’s Evers — his state ranks as the No. 2 U.S. milk-producer — sees the labels as putting the drinks on par with dairy products from animals “when they are fundamentally different.”

The New England vegan, though, posits that equity should require animal milk be labeled, too, to show “important nutrients which are less common in dairy milk than in plant-based milks.”

The FDA has been wrestling with non-dairy “milk” for a number of years, earlier seeking comment on what to call the products and whether “milk” was confusing to consumers. That 2018 request yielded 13,000 responses, with the FDA concluding that consumers understood that so-called plant-based milk alternatives, or PBMAs, did not contain animal milk and chose the products for that very reason.

But, the FDA also said, “many consumers may not be aware of the nutritional differences between milk and PBMA products.”

That apparently is the impetus for the new labeling recommendations up for comment through April.

Why now, though, has Rusty Rumley, senior staff attorney at the National Agricultural Law Center, part of the University of Arkansas, scratching his head. Perhaps the pandemic interceded, he offers.

The FDA has a precise definition of milk that pegs it to cows, but never took enforcement action against plant-based “milk,” Rumley says. In the meantime, a major new industry developed.

And the FDA recommendation for nutritional labels is categorized as “guidance,” which means they’re voluntary and carry no penalties.

The New York Farm Bureau falls into the same camp as Wisconsin’s governor: dairy is dairy and plant is plant.

“NYFB calls on FDA to vigorously enforce food standards regarding the labeling of dairy products and prohibit the misleading labeling of nut- and plant-based beverage products as ‘milk,’” David Fisher, president of the statewide group, wrote in comments submitted to the agency when it was evaluating “milk” as a descriptor for plant-based beverages.

New York ranks No. 5 in milk production behind California, Wisconsin, Idaho and Texas.

Spokesman Steve Ammerman says the Farm Bureau plans to submit additional comments to the FDA on nutrition labels, which are important to avoid confusion, but the group believes the agency “should go further in upholding the statutory definition of milk.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

Categories: Opinion, Opinion

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