FDA Weighs in on Plant-Based ‘Milk’ Debate

April 26, 2018
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb pledges more focus on ‘mislabeled’ dairy alternative foods.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the FDA is “actively” exploring whether consumers are being misled by the use of terms such as "milk" or "yogurt" to describe plant-based nondairy products. But reports this week (April 23) point out the FDA's silence on this issue in recent years may make it trickier to take action without new data.

Gottlieb told a Senate panel on April 24 that federal standards define milk as a product sourced from animals, and said his agency would be “taking a very close and fresh look” at imitation, plant-derived foods labeled with dairy-specific terms, reported the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Arlington, Va.

Responding to questions from Senator Tammy Baldwin during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing April 24, Gottlieb admitted the agency has “exercised enforcement discretion,” in not holding food marketers to that standard, as a variety of plant-based foods using "dairy-specific terms" have proliferated in the marketplace in the past two decades.

In 2017, Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act, legislation that would oblige the FDA to set a timetable to begin enforcing action against mislabeled imitation dairy products. The omnibus spending bill Congress approved in March 2018 contains language expressing its concern that dairy labeling standards need to be properly enforced, the NMPF said.

Reports mention that Gottlieb told Baldwin the agency is committed to taking a new look into what the agency is doing regarding standards of identity. He also said he has actively explored the issue, having heard the concerns of Baldwin and the NMPF about the slow regulatory environment surrounding misbranded plant products using terms such as “milk,” “yogurt,” “cheese” and “ice cream,” the NMPF noted. Gottlieb went on to add that the agency is requesting more information to inform its next steps, though Baldwin told Gottlieb there's no need for further study or review.

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