No cow needed: Oat and soy can be called milk, FDA proposes

Associated Press
The rules released Wednesday by the FDA also call for voluntary extra nutrition labels that note when plant-based "milk" products have lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk. In recent years, the number of plant-based drinks has exploded to include dozens of varieties, including cashew, coconut and hemp.

Soy, oat, almond and other drinks that bill themselves as “milk” can keep using the name, according to draft federal rules released Wednesday.

Food and Drug Administration officials issued guidance that says plant-based beverages don’t pretend to be from dairy animals – and that U.S. consumers aren’t confused by the difference.

Dairy producers for years have called for the FDA to crack down on plant-based drinks and other products that they say masquerade as animal-based foods and cloud the real meaning of “milk.”

President Brody Stapel says Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative is disappointed to see the FDA continue to allow the dairy term ‘milk’ when labeling imitation products, violating the agency’s existing standard of identity for ‘milk.’

Brody Stapel

“Dairy farmers reinvest in the dairy brand through our checkoff dollars to provide research, marketing and advertising the numerous health benefits of their dairy products,” said Stapel. “Dairy farmers work tirelessly to provide safe, nutritious milk for Americans, and inferior products have capitalized off dairy’s good name for far too long.” 

A tireless advocate for dairy farmers, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) slammed the FDA for its ill-advised guidance on the unfair use of dairy terms to mislabel plant-based products.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin

“America’s dairy farmers work hard to produce second-to-none products with the highest nutritional value, and plant-based products should not be getting away with using their good name,” said Baldwin in a statement. “This misguided rule will hurt America’s dairy farmers and our rural communities. Since the FDA is failing to enforce its own definitions for dairy terminology and stop imitation products from deceiving consumers, we will be reintroducing our DAIRY PRIDE Act to stand up for America’s dairy farmers and the quality products they make.”

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Krentz says his organization is in full support of Baldwin's introduction of the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would force the FDA to abide by its own definitions.

"The FDA cannot choose which regulation to enforce and which it will ignore. In this case, federal regulations are clear and FDA still chose to issue guidance in conflict with their own definitions, hurting Wisconsin farmers in the process," Krentz said. "If federal agencies are going to ignore their own regulations, Congress must act to force compliance and protect farmers."

Under the draft rules, the agency recommends that beverage makers label their products clearly by the plant source of the food, such as “soy milk” or “cashew milk.”

The rules also call for voluntary extra nutrition labels that note when the drinks have lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk, such as calcium, magnesium or vitamin D. They would continue to allow labels that note when plant-based drinks have higher levels. Fortified soy milk is the only plant-based food included in the dairy category of U.S. dietary guidelines because of its nutrient levels.

The new guidelines are aimed at providing consumers clear nutrition information, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a statement. The draft rules do not apply to nondairy products other than beverages, such as yogurt.

The National Milk Producers Federation, an industry trade group, and EDGE applauded the call for extra nutrition information on drink labels, but said they rejected the FDA’s conclusion that plant-based drinks can be called milk because it’s a “common and usual name.”

“Accurate labeling of imitation dairy products, especially milk, has frustrated dairy farmers for far too long. The nutritional benefits of dairy products are superior to imitation products, and consumers should be well-informed using proper labeling and terms. Dairy foods, including milk, are part of a healthy eating pattern and provide consumers with healthy and nutritious food options,” Stapel said.

The Good Food Institute, a group that advocates for plant-based products, objected to the extra labeling in a statement, saying “the guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison" with cow’s milk, even though key nutrients are already required to be listed.

In recent years, the number of plant-based drinks has exploded to include dozens of varieties, including cashew, coconut, hemp and quinoa-based beverages. Although the drinks are made from the liquid extracts of plant materials, they are frequently labeled – and described – as “milks.”

In the U.S., almond milk is the most popular variety, but oat milk has been seeing the fastest growth. Still, nondairy sales are dwarfed by traditional milk. Sales of refrigerated cow’s milk grew to $12.3 billion in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 28, compared to $2.5 billion for nondairy milk, according to NielsenIQ.

In the past, lawmakers in dairy states have tried to get bills passed that would require the FDA to enforce a federal standard that defines “milk” as the product of “milking one or more healthy cows.”

The agency will accept comments on the draft guidelines through April 23.

“The co-op is looking forward to working with the FDA and Administrator Dr. Robert Califf by providing comments to express the importance of accurate labeling of plant-based milk alternatives for consumers and farmers,” Stapel said.

Colleen Kottke of the Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this article