July 27, 2018
The Food and Drug Administration claims that some companies are “milking” the term, “milk,” for all it’s worth—and that’s got to stop. Indeed, just last week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency plans to issue a document outlining changes to its policies that govern the marketing of the dairy drink, Morning Consult reported on July 25.
“You see the proliferation of products like soy milk and almond milk calling themselves milk, and if you look at our standards of identity, there is a reference somewhere to a lactating animal,” Gottlieb said. “And an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”
A new Morning Consult/Politico poll of 2,203 U.S. adults suggests some consumer support for the move—with 46% of respondents saying the label “milk” should not be used to describe nondairy beverages.
Adults age 65 and older showed the strongest support for the FDA’s potential label enforcement (66%). Young adults, or those ages 18-29, showed the strongest support for allowing nondairy beverage makers to call their products “milk,” at 39%.
The debate between dairy producers and plant-based milk substitute producers over the use of the word “milk” isn’t new. In January 2017, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) introduced a bill, the Dairy Pride Act Act (S. 130), which would stop nondairy drink manufacturers from using “milk” to describe their products. However, the bill has languished since that time.
A few weeks after the introduction of the bill, Capstone Law filed two class-action suits in Los Angeles County against plant-based beverage providers—one against WhiteWave Foods (now, a subsidiary of Danone North America)., which produces Silk (soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and cashew milk); and another against Blue Diamond Growers, which produces Almond Breeze. However, the Blue Diamond suit was dismissed on the grounds that “the claim of customer confusion is patently implausible,” and the other lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the FDA would be a better venue for the discussion.
Charles Lindsey, an associate professor of Marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management, told Morning Consult on July 23 that the new conversation could be happening too late, given that the terms “soy milk” and “almond milk” are already a part of the consumer lexicon.
“The dairy industry has a perception that this is going to help the dairy industry and the declining sales,” Lindsey said. “But I’m not so sure there’s necessarily a clear winner and a clear loser here as a result of the FDA enforcing a more narrow identity definition of milk.”
Chris Galen, spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation, said in a phone interview on July 24 that dairy producers aren’t contending that the average consumer confuses soy milk with cow milk. “The issue though is that when something is called milk, it has this healthy connotation, and what we think people don’t understand is the level of disparities in nutrition,” Galen said.
In Canada, the term “milk” can’t be used for nondairy products, so many brands instead opt to call it an “almond beverage” or an alternative descriptor in markets outside of the United States, Galen said.
“The imitators will have no trouble at all with complying with the standards when the FDA enforces them, because they’re already complying with those standards in other countries,” Galen said.
Jessica Almy, director of Policy at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting plant-based food products, told the researchers on July 23 that “it’s pretty condescending” to say consumers don’t understand what they’re buying when they purchase almond milk or soy milk.
Almy hopes that—once the FDA starts exploring enforcement of the already defined milk label—it’ll find a compromise.
“If the FDA were to take a very aggressive approach to how these products can be labeled, it would affect not just the plant-based producers, but a wide swath of the food industry,” Almy said.
The Good Food Institute also said by email that if the FDA were to ban dairy terms on plant-based products, the group would sue.
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