By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, contributing editor
FDA policy debates can certainly get pretty wonky, and for that reason they often seem to fly below the public radar. But it seems that whenever FDA wades into a debate about food, the nation reacts.
In recent years, we've seen people form passionate opinions about whether egg-free mayonnaise is really "mayo" and whether cauliflower rice is really "rice." Now, the debate is turning to milk. Let's take a closer look.
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'An almond doesn't lactate'
The debate over whether nondairy products such as almond and soy milk should be permitted to be labeled as "milk" has been going on for a while. But it drew new attention this week when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency is considering taking a harder line against certain nondairy "milk" products, in accordance with FDA regulations.
During a Politico event Tuesday, Gottlieb said FDA soon will issue guidance detailing changes to how the agency will enforce its standards regarding which products can be marketed as milk. He noted that, currently, federal regulations state that products permitted to be marketed as milk must originate from lactating animals.
As such, when it comes to nut- and plant-based milk, Gottlieb said, "The question becomes, have we been enforcing our own standard of identity?" He continued, "The answer is probably not," jesting that "an almond doesn't lactate" and therefore almond milk doesn't actually meet FDA's milk standards.
Gottlieb said FDA will seek public comments on the matter before overhauling the standards, saying it will likely take "close to a year" for any changes to be implemented. And based on the reaction Gottlieb's comments have gotten over the past few days, it's likely FDA could get an earful.
Dairy industry looking for a milk crackdown
One industry that likely will be on board with the revamp is the dairy industry, Gottlieb noted, saying, "This has been a little bit of a bugaboo to the dairy industry."
Politico's Alexander Nieves writes that the dairy industry has been pursuing a milk marketing crackdown "amid dropping prices and global oversupply" of dairy-based milk. Nieves writes, "The industry has petitioned FDA to enforce marketing standards for milk, but the agency has not previously addressed the issue."
According to Nieves, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) also has sought to enforce FDA's milk marketing standards. Early last year, Baldwin introduced legislation that would prohibit companies from using the term "milk" to market nondairy products, "[b]ut legislative action on that front has gained little traction," Nieves writes.
Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, praised Gottlieb's announcement, saying, "After years of inaction ... Gottlieb's announcement that the agency is intending to act on this issue is very encouraging." He said FDA's inaction on the issue thus far "has led to rampant consumer fraud related to the inferior nutrient content of these non-dairy products compared to their true dairy counterparts."
But exactly how FDA will change the way it enforces its milk standards is not yet known. As such, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Rick Barrett writes that the American Dairy Coalition this week "launched an effort aimed at persuading … FDA to not expand the definition of milk to include plant-based beverages." According to Barrett, Laurie Fischer, the coalition's executive director, said, "The dairy industry is taking a stand and saying 'milk is milk.' And we want to make sure that consumers understand what it is."
And in a somewhat surprising move, Ingrid Newkirk, president of animal rights advocacy group PETA, this week told Newsweek's Kashmira Gander that it, too, supports FDA's move to crack down on milk marketing. Newkirk says the organization thinks nondairy milks should distinguish themselves from dairy-based milks because of concerns regarding "health and the treatment of animals," Gander writes.
Others say FDA should leave nondairy milk alone
But The Good Food Institute has argued that FDA should abandon its effort and let nondairy milk products be marketed as milk. Bruce Friedrich, the organization's co-founder, told the Associated Press' Candice Choi, "For the same reason that you can have gluten-free bread and rice noodles, almond milk and soy milk are the most clear and best terms for describing those products."
Further, Matthew Ball, a spokesperson for the institute, suggested FDA is making the change solely to appease the dairy industry. "No one is buying almond milk, or soy milk, thinking that it came from a cow," he said, adding, "This is a free speech issue. There's no way it can be painted as misleading consumers."
Dominika Piasecka, spokesperson for The Vegan Society, seemingly agreed. Piasecka told Gander, "There's no denying that the meat, dairy, and egg industries are feeling threatened, and this is a desperate move to try to restrict the marketing of [nondairy milk] products."
Change could spur lawsuits
FDA also could end up facing lawsuits over its milk crackdown. Gottlieb on Tuesday said, "Invariably, we will probably get sued … because the dictionary says milk can come from a lactating animal or a nut."
And the Good Food Institute already has threatened a lawsuit if FDA orders nondairy milk producers to change their marketing, Barrett writes. But the group is hoping it won't come to that. "We are optimistic … FDA will make the right call, allowing plant-based producers to continue to clearly label their products as what they are," Ball said.
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