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Legislators representing dairy states intend to hold the FDA chief to his word regarding the use of the term "milk" for nondairy products like soy and almond beverages.

Last summer, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency was moving to craft a guidance document to provide consistency and clarity for consumers and that he intended to implement change over the next year.

Now that the FDA comment period has ended for the document, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jim Risch (R-ID) have reintroduced bipartisan legislation this week to combat the unfair practice of mislabeling non-dairy products.

The DAIRY PRIDE Act (Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday) would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae to no longer be mislabeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.

The bipartisan legislation is cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Angus King (I-ME), and it has also been introduced in the House by Representatives Peter Welch (D-VT) and Mike Simpson (R-ID).

“Dairy farmers in Wisconsin work tirelessly every day to ensure that their milk meets high standards for nutritional value and quality,” said Senator Baldwin. “Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced. Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers."

According to current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, dairy products are defined as being from dairy animals. Unfortunately the FDA has failed to enforce the labeling standards allowing products such as Almond Milk to flood the shelves in supermarkets.

If signed into law, the DAIRY PRIDE Act would require the FDA to issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of mislabeled imitation dairy products within 90 days and require the FDA to report to Congress two years after enactment to hold the agency accountable for this update in their enforcement obligations.

“For too long, the FDA has turned a blind eye to the misbranding of imitation dairy products, despite the decades-old federal law that milk comes from animals, not vegetables or nuts," said Jim Mulhern, President and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation. "None of these imitators provides the same high quality and quantity of nutrition offered by real milk."

A recent research study commissioned by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative shows the need for FDA enforcement, as it found that labeling causes consumer confusion over whether plant-based products are actually dairy foods and whether they offer the same nutritional value.

“When someone buys cheese, they’re expecting that product to have been made with real milk, not a nut or a bean,” said John Umhoefer, WCMA Executive Director.  “WCMA members support Senator Baldwin’s work to enforce labeling standards and help consumers make well-informed choices at the grocery store.”

WIsconsin cheesemakers Kim Heiman, president of Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, and Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda in Thorp, support lawmakers' efforts to require transparency in the marketplace.

“We stand with dairy farmers by saying ‘no’ to the mislabeling of non-dairy products,” Penterman said. “Corporations are taking advantage of a movement pushing for an ‘ethical’ way to consume products, ironically, by making false and unsubstantiated claims about their products."

While manufacturers of plant-based products claim that consumers aren't "confused" about the source of their products, dairy industry insiders feel they have benefited unfairly from milk's reputation in the marketplace.

“Nothing compares to the taste or nutritional value of real milk and cheese, so it’s no wonder that the makers of plant-based imitators have labeled their products with dairy terms,” Heiman said. “The truth is, these products are very different, and consumers deserve to know it."  

Jeff Schwager, president of Sartori Company in Plymouth, Wis., says American consumers are best served by clear labeling of their food.

"When they buy cheese, yogurt, and ice cream at the grocery store, they expect those products are made with real milk – not a plant-based imitator,” Schwager said.

Wisconsin dairy farmer and president of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative Brody Stapel says the lack of FDA action has led to an anything goes mentality in the marketplace.

"Misperceptions about non-dairy foods are real. The imitations confuse customers who rely on names and product packaging to make judgments about a food," Stapel said. "These customers deserve transparency, and dairy farm families and processors serve fairness.”

Sen. Jim Risch said dairy farmers in his home state of Idaho work hard to meet high FDA standards while others misuse the term “dairy” but aren’t subjected to the same rigorous requirements

"This is not right,” said Risch said. “The nutritional value found in dairy is not replicated by imitation products, and it’s time our labeling requirements reflect that.”

By ensuring the FDA enforces labeling requirements, cosponsors of the DAIRY PRIDE Act say it will strengthen the dairy industry and help to protect the livelihood of farmers.

“The DAIRY PRIDE Act is simply about fairness," said Sen. Leahy. "...hardworking dairy farmers deserve to sell their products on a level playing field, just as consumers deserve to know exactly what they’re putting on the table. In both cases, truth in labeling matters."

Leahy said there's is room on store shelves for plant-based products, but every consumer should know that milk doesn’t come from plants.

"It’s past time for labels across the country to reflect that,” he said.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte pointed out that Wisconsin’s dairy industry is the backbone of our state’s agricultural economy.

"We receive world-wide recognition because our farmers take pride in providing healthy and safe dairy products to their customers," Holte said. "The labeling and marketing of all dairy milk products should be accurate and enforced by the FDA."

Dairy farmer Janet Clark of Vision Aire Farms, Eldorado, Wis., says dairy has built a strong reputation as a reliable source of important nutrients consumers need daily.

"To use these dairy terms on plant-based products undermines the real value that dairy provides in the form of naturally occurring Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin A among others," she said. "Consumers associate dairy with the nutrients they need, and those are naturally occurring in milk from cows.”

Dairy farmers invest a great deal of time and money to produce a wholesome, nutritious product for consumers, and take pride in the milk they produce, said Steve Etka of the Midwest Dairy Coalition.

"The federal government has promised to ensure that the term ‘milk’ on store shelves can only be used on dairy products. But they have fallen short on that promise," Etka said. "The bill introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin will help ensure that products labeled as milk are indeed dairy products. Consumers and dairy farmers alike will be the beneficiaries of this effort.”

Baldwin says she has been pressing the FDA to uphold its commitments to dairy farmers and processors who abide by FDA regulations and properly make and label their products, and has called on the agency to take action against companies that don’t follow FDA’s long-standing rules on dairy product labeling.

Last spring, she pressed FDA boss Scott Gottlieb to act, and last fall, he announced he was taking the first step in this process.

"But we do have a standard of identity, and I intend to enforce that," Gottlieb said last year. The FDA chief announced earlier this month that he intends to leave his post in April.

Baldwin and fellow lawmakers plan to keep the pressure up on Gottlieb, pressing the agency to move forward quickly.

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