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Milk by any other name…
milk war graphic

It’s a long-standing debate, but a recent statement by the Food and Drug Administration has dairymen, farmers and even senators asking the question: What products actually qualify as “milk?”


Soy and almond drinks that promote themselves as “milk” may soon have to change their labeling, after FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb signaled plans to start enforcing a federal standard that defines “milk” as coming from the “milking of one or more healthy cows” in recent statements.


“An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” Gottlieb said on July 17 at a conference sponsored by the news website Politico.


The standard definition of milk as the “lacteal secretion” produced by cows has been on the books for years but has gone unenforced by the FDA. During that time, dairy farmers fought back against the terms almond and soy milk fiercely and see the FDA’s newly-found attention to detail as long overdue.


“We’ve been calling for this for a long time,” California Dairy Campaign Executive Director Lynne McBride said. “We commend the commissioner for upholding the standards of the identity for milk. It’s important that customers understand what they’re buying.”


McBride said that the labeling of almond and soy products as milk has led to confusion for some people at the grocery store, who can be led to believe that the plant-based drinks contain the same nutritional value as a cow’s milk.


One cup of whole cow’s milk contains 7.7 grams of protein, while a cup of soy milk has 6.3 grams and a cup of almond milk has one gram of protein. Confusion between the two is said to have led to infants developing cases of nutritional rickets and protein malnutrition when almond- or soy-based products were consumed instead of dairy.


“People are assuming that these products have nutritional values that they don’t necessarily have,” McBride said. “We think it’s important to label only milk as milk and clear up any confusion that might exist out there.”


In a July 26 statement, Gottlieb said that food labels — including the name of food — must be “truthful and not misleading,” as consumers base their choices on the information provided, which can greatly impact health. At the same time, however, Gottlieb also stated that the FDA is taking actions to facilitate food innovations that provide more choices for consumers and produce healthier options.


The issue of milk is one area that needs greater clarity, he said.


“Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as “milk,” we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of a cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products only contain a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” Gottlieb’s statement said.


The FDA plans to study the matter through an active public process, gathering stakeholder feedback and reviewing the information to revisit standard policy for the terms. Already, the conversation has been met with blowback from the plant-based food industry.


In a letter to Gottlieb, Director of Policy for the Good Food Institute Jessica Almy argued that the standard of identity for milk does not apply to plant-based milks that use qualifiers on their labels.


“Compound names are commonly used on labels throughout the food supply,” Almy wrote, pointing to other terms like “rye bread” and “rice noodles.” “We assume that the FDA will not be cracking down on these clearly labeled products, and for the same reason, it would not make sense for the FDA to censor almond milk, soy milk and similar plant-based dairy alternatives.”


Confusion is a non-issue for consumers as well, GFI argues.


In a GFI-conducted pilot study of 159 adults, 96 percent correctly selected soybeans as the primary ingredient to make soy milk, 93 percent correctly selected almonds as the primary ingredient in almond milk, 94 percent correctly selected cow’s milk as the primary ingredient used to make whole milk.


This data backs up several court decisions, GFI says, including a 2013 case where plaintiffs sued the maker of Silk plant-based milks. Judge Samuel Conti ruled in favor of the company, finding that the plaintiffs’ claim that they had been deceived “stretches the bounds of credulity” and that “under plaintiffs’ logic, a reasonable consumer might also believe that veggie bacon contains pork, that flourless chocolate cake contains flour, or that e-books are made out of paper.”


The FDA statement has also been met with dissatisfaction — and approval — from legislators as well.


The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday morning to defeat an amendment, offered by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, that would have killed spending on the FDA’s public study of stakeholder feedback on what can be marketed as milk. Senators voted 14-84 against the amendment, which will not be included in the fiscal 2019 spending package.


For dairy producers, the decision was a glimmer of hope as the industry struggles because of lactose intolerance and other concerns; per capita consumption of dairy milk fell 22 percent between 2000 and 2016, according to market research.


“Dairy farmers are really proud of the milk they produce,” McBride said. “We think it’s really good news that the standards of identity are finally going to be enforced.”