You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Crying over spilled milk? FDA made the right choice on plant-based labeling — with one exception

The Hill 2/28/2023 Paul Shapiro, opinion contributor
© Provided by The Hill

Facing a steady reduction in demand for liquid milk, the dairy industry has long-warned that consumers are being duped by names like “coconut milk” and “oat milk,” despite lack of evidence that there’s confusion amongst milk consumers as to whether they’re getting products from a cow or not. So it was welcome news this week when the Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) proposed guidelines that would explicitly allow makers of dairy-free products to keep using “milk” in their product names so long as they employ qualifiers such as “soy milk” and “almond milk.”

This is a reasonable move. Consumers don’t seem to have a difficult time understanding that peanut butter doesn’t contain cow-derived butter, hamburgers don’t contain pig-derived ham and hot dogs don’t contain, well, you know. The same is so with oat milk.

Senators from dairy states don’t seem to agree. In response to the FDA’s new proposal, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) vowed to reintroduce legislation to crack down on the oat milk trend. Their DAIRY PRIDE Act (The Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act) would ban the use of terms like “milk” on dairy-free drinks, and essentially force these companies to use terms like “almond beverage.” 

Such efforts are hardly new. As early as the 1860s, lawmakers protecting the dairy industry were crusading against margarine with taxes and even laws requiring alt-butter to be dyed pink. While today’s DAIRY PRIDE Act is thankfully unlikely to become law any time soon, the FDA’s proposed guidance does contain some sour milk for the makers of alt-dairy beverages. 

While recommending the allowance of “milk” terms, the FDA also proposes on-carton disclosure of a nutritional comparison between the dairy-free product to cow’s milk, such as a protein content. Setting aside the fact that protein deficiency is virtually non-existent in the United States, the FDA already requires nutrition facts panels on such foods, so why the forced speech?

Consumers are smart enough to understand that different products have different nutritional values. Skim milk and whole milk aren’t the same, for example, yet the FDA doesn’t force whole milk producers to disclose on-carton that it contains nearly twice as many calories as skim milk. Similarly, there’s no requirement for goat milk producers to include on-carton verbiage about how it has more sodium than cow’s milk. 

Even further, it seems quite unlikely that the FDA will soon require that cow’s milk cartons disclose how much more cholesterol they have than plant-based milks. (All plant-based milks have zero cholesterol.) Or mandatory disclosure about how much more land and water cow’s milk requires compared to oat milk, which is very substantial. 

The FDA should create a level playing field for incumbents and challengers alike. Instead, the agency seems to be pretending that cow’s milk is a holy grail to which all other drinks must be compared.

As attorney Nigel Barrella told AgFunder News, “Effectively, alt-milk producers are being asked to tacitly endorse a government (and dairy industry) message they object to — that bovine milk is some gold standard for human health, and any alternative that has less of a single nutrient is something to be concerned about.”

The FDA is right to acknowledge that consumers understand oat milk doesn’t come from a cow. It’s also time for the agency to acknowledge that consumers comprehend that different foods have different nutritional profiles. 

In this case, we don’t need new federal laws restricting speech nor new agency rules forcing speech. Rather than crying over spilled milk — plant-based or not — consumers who are motivated by concerns about particular nutrients can just do what they always do: Read nutrition facts panels that are already sensibly printed right there on the carton. 

Paul Shapiro is the CEO of The Better Meat Co. and author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon