MADISON - Since products made from plants began showing up in the dairy case labeled “milk” it has been a burr under the saddle of dairy farmers who have railed against the use of the term “milk” on products that don’t come from cows.

Kim Bremmer is one person who has been doing something about it. She has been working with the Wisconsin-based dairy lobbying group, American Dairy Coalition, on a milk integrity project. She took a break from helping take care of dairy cattle at World Dairy Expo to talk about the project to a room full of dairy farmers and industry professionals.

Bremmer grew up on a farm, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and works as a dairy nutritionist. She has also created Ag Inspirations and does public speaking on behalf of agriculture.

Trends show that consumers are coming back to full-fat and 2 percent milk (and butter) but overall, milk consumption per capita in the United States is at a 75-year low. Part of that is consumer preference for other beverages. Graphs showing sales of plant-based “milk” products have shown skyrocketing sales in recent years.

“These products’ sales have grown 61 percent in the last five years alone,” she said. Those sales reached $2.11 billion in 2017.

At the end of World War II, U.S. consumers drank milk at the rate of 50 gallons per person. Now, it stands at 17 gallons per person per year.

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a standard of identity for milk and that it must be a “lacteal secretion” from a cow. These other products like almond “milk” or similar products made from peas, soy, rice, coconuts and even oats and wheat, obviously don’t come from a cow. Yet they have been allowed to use the term “milk” on their products.

Bremmer and the American Dairy Coalition think that’s wrong.

The consumption of fluid milk and the fight for fair labeling on milk, Bremmer said, isn’t a high priority for organizations funded by dairy farmers’ check-off money. “Fluid milk has been left in the dust,” she said. “It’s not a flashy subject to promote.”

So the fight with the FDA has been left for a few dairy farm groups that took up the challenge. They forced a hearing with stakeholders. Bremmer was one of only three who spoke in favor of the FDA upholding the standard of identity for milk and forcing the plant-based products to change their labeling.

More than 30 other groups spoke against that change. Among them was the Good Food Institute which generally has a vegan message and weaves in the concept that food from plants are good, but animal agriculture is bad, Bremmer said. “Consumers are misled every day.” The Good Food Institute argues that the term “milk” should be used by plant-based drinks as long as they use other terms, like “soy” milk.

This group and others like it maintain that the definition of milk is overly narrow. There’s a good chance that lawsuits may ensue when the FDA finally issues its regulatory guidance.

Dairy farmers tell her that it is silly for the federal agency to allow plant-based products to be called “milk,” Bremmer said. “It’s not common sense.”

We live in an era where one in five U.S. kids are “food insecure” meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from and one of every two kids is deficient in calcium, vitamin D and potassium, Bremmer said. Five out of every six adolescent girls are deficient in calcium, setting them up for osteoporosis later in life.

She urged farmers to make some noise on this subject. There was an open public comment period (which has now closed) to weigh in on the FDA’s rule to tighten its use of the term “milk” — which basically means upholding the current standard of identity for milk.

“What we do makes a difference,” she said.

The National Milk Producers Federation called the non-milk products “plant-based dairy imitators” and pushed the FDA for changes in enforcement, based on the fact that their use of the term “milk” violates federal standards of identity.

When farmers and dairy groups — and their legislators — first started agitating about the use of the term “milk” on plant-based beverages, they decried the fact that the FDA wasn’t enforcing existing standards of identity. That’s when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb kicked off a regulatory process outlining a new approach to regulating the terminology used in the marketplace.

Gottlieb has said since the summer that he planned on changing the regulation of the term “milk.” His agency wants to make sure that the public is clear about the differences between real milk, as dairy farmers know it, and the plant-based products that have been using the word “milk” in their name for a long time.

Part of the process involved getting input from the public on what people understand about the definition of milk. Not helpful in this process is that fact that the FDA standard of identity only includes cow’s milk — not that of goats or sheep — making the agency a target of those who think the definition needs to be rewritten.

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Gottlieb, who is a medical doctor, noted that people may think the plant-based alternatives are equivalent to dairy milk, but that certain nutrition-based diseases have been reported in U.S. children. He cited case reports of the disease called kwashiorkor in young children as a result of feeding rice-based beverages instead of milk. The disease is a severe form of protein malnutrition most often seen in under-developed countries.

He also cited a case report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. Parents of the child used a soy-based alternative to cow’s milk.
These case studies, he said in a statement, show that parents may erroneously assume that the nutritional content of plant-based beverages are the same as that of milk from cows even though some of them contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients that are in cow’s milk.

Some published studies showed that the nutrients that are added to things like almond or soy “milk” to boost their nutrient content — things like calcium – are not as bio-available as those nutrients in natural cow’s milk.

The FDA developed guidance notifying companies of a change in its enforcement and then asked for public comment, the period of which just ended on Oct. 11. It may take as long as a year for the agency’s guidance to be issued.

There’s evidence that the FDA for at least seven years hasn’t wanted to call soy-based “milk” by that term, but other agencies — namely the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- continued to use that nomenclature.

The disagreement over what can be called milk is just one of the terminology and marketing issues facing the food industry and the FDA. On the horizon — can they call it “meat” if it was grown in a lab?

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