FDA looks to reward dairy industry with exclusive use of 'milk' term

Nut milks
© Antonina Vlasova

Sorry, soy milk, almond milk and oat milk – Big Dairy doesn't want to share the name.

Got milk? For makers of plant-based milks, the answer may soon be "no," according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's announcement that the Trump administration is moving to crack down on the term for nondairy products.

POLITICO reports that the move would be a "major boon for dairy groups, which have been struggling amid dropping prices and global oversupply." And it comes as little surprise that the industry has been pushing for it. At at time when more and more people are looking at plant-based alternatives, the industry group, National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), has recently been ramping up their pleas for the FDA to stem the flow of nondairy alternatives donning a "milk" label. Needless to say, they are pleased.

"NMPF welcomed Gottlieb’s recognition today that the labeling practices of many plant-based dairy imitators violate long-standing federal standards," Chris Galen, a spokesman for the group said in a statement. In the statement, Jim Mulhern, the organization's CEO, said that consumers are being misled.

(But maybe rather than being misled, they are delighting in the fact that there are so many wonderful options for people who don't want to consume animal products.)

According to the current federal standards, which were updated in April of 2017, milk is described as "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows."

“An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” Gottlieb said.

While of course we want things to be accurately labeled, it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. Accuracy is important so that manufacturers don't try to coax consumers into buying something they think is something else. But for heaven's sake, nobody buying soy milk believes that soy milk comes from a cow.

As I see it, this is a matter of etymology. What is "milk"? Even Gottlieb admits that the agency expects to get sued, since dictionaries define milk as coming from a lactating animal or a nut.

So let's look at almond milk. People have been making and drinking almond milk for millennia. I do not know how long we have been calling the liquid pressed from almonds, "milk," but the earliest record I could find comes from 1597 in The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. And I would argue that at least five centuries of language usage pretty much confirms the validity of the term for liquids other than those exclusively issued from a cow.

Once we let industries start dictating the language we can use to call things the things we've been commonly and accurately calling them for ages, it's a problem. That plant-based milks are becoming so mainstream must have the dairy industry nervous – projections expect the dairy alternative market to to exceed $34 billion by 2024 – but bullying the makers of alternative milk makers and sticking the FDA on them is nothing more than corporate strong-arming.

We covered a similar issue earlier this year when the U.S. Cattlemen's Association filed a 15-page petition with the USDA requesting that it define the word "meat" so that it cannot be used to label products that do not contain animal flesh.

Labeling is complicated and obviously we need standards so that manufacturers don't mislead consumers, but at the rate we're going, what's next? Will they go after Milk of Magnesia ... how about cream of coconut and peanut butter?

USA Today reports that the FDA can’t just change the way it enforces a standard without warning, and thus the agency will have to first develop guidance notifying companies of the change and ask for public comment. He expects the process to take about a year. In support of the companies offering plant-based alternatives, I will surely be adding a few public comments of my own. We will keep you updated how and when to do the same should you feel so inclined.

FDA looks to reward dairy industry with exclusive use of 'milk' term
Sorry, soy milk, almond milk and oat milk – Big Dairy doesn't want to share the name.

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