In late January, The Food and Drug Administration wrapped up its public comment period on whether plant-based products should be allowed to continue using words like "milk" and "cheese" on their labels and packaging. Proponents of increased regulation argue that the practice of labeling non-dairy products as "milk" misleads consumers and may pose a risk to public health. In a formal petition to the FDA, The National Milk Producers Federation proposed that plant-based brands should use standardized terms, like "imitation" or "substitute," to avoid confusion about the nutritional value of diary alternatives and ensure maximum transparency.
"Non-dairy milk sales have grown by 61 percent since 2012."
Plant-based dairy products – including almond, soy, coconut and more – have steadily grown in popularity over the past few years, while traditional milk has seen a consistent decline. According to Mintel, non-dairy milk sales have grown by 61 percent since 2012, whereas dairy milk has dropped by around 15 percent during the same period. This may account, in part, for the timing of this labeling controversy, as both sides of the debate have a significant stake in the FDA's final ruling.
Dairy Farmers Support Legal Definition
Many of the advocacy groups supporting regulatory action argue that the FDA's current definition of milk should be enforced in earnest, as it draws a clear line between dairy and non-dairy products. According to the FDA Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, milk is defined as "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." Such a definition appears to disqualify plant-based alternatives from using the term, yet the FDA has historically taken a hands-off approach to the issue. This inaction from is one of the factors that compelled The National Milk Producers Federation to file an official petition with the agency.
"FDA regulations… would be nonsensical and rendered meaningless if manufacturers could simply create new substitute products as they please, and misappropriate the name of the respective reference standardized food in the statement of identity for the substitute in any manner that suits them," the NMPF stated in its petition.
Beyond the legal ramifications, NMPF points to the nutritional value of dairy products as a crucial part of a healthy diet. The organization's petition argues that dairy foods provide 54 percent of calcium, 56 percent of vitamin D, 29 percent of vitamin A and 18 percent of protein in the standard diet of Americans over the age of two. As such, the use of dairy-related terms on plant-based products holds the potential to negatively impact public health in the U.S.
Although the FDA is still reviewing the issue, several federal courts have already rejected similar claims about the misleading labeling practices of non-dairy product manufacturers. In 2018, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit against Blue Diamond Growers, a leading manufacturer of almond milk, which claimed the company's use of the term violated federal law, as reported by Bloomberg Law.
Plant-based Milk Advocates Call for Voluntary Labeling Standards
The NMPF's calls for regulation come at an interesting time, as many supporters of plant-based milk have been openly calling for voluntary labeling standards for over a year. A 2018 memo from The Plant-Based Foods Association suggested that manufacturers of dairy-free, plant-based milk should use standardized nomenclature to promote labeling consistency within the general marketplace.
The NMPF's memo defines plant-based milk as "a liquid food produced by combining nuts, grains, legumes, seeds, (or ingredients derived from these foods), or other plant-based ingredients, with water and other optional non-animal-based ingredients." One of the agency's sticking points is that non-dairy milk products should clearly indicate their plant-based origins by including a prominent statement of identity on the packaging's principal display panel. This would adequately inform consumers about the product and allow plant-based milk manufacturers to use the term with as little chance of confusion as possible.
In the world of food labeling, debate over a single word can lead to a slew of regulatory action and impact how entire industries connect with their customers. This accounts for why food and beverage manufacturers dedicate ample time and resources to perfecting their labeling strategies, which often rely on flexible printing infrastructure.