Because the Trump administration apparently doesn’t have bigger fish to fry right now (Russia? pffft), it announced yesterday that it will soon crack down on the use of the term “milk” as applied to non-dairy products such as soy, oat, hemp, and almond beverages.
Speaking yesterday at Politico’s annual Pro Summit convention of reporters and policy makers, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced the upcoming labeling changes, remarking that “An almond doesn’t lactate, I confess.”
The somehow disturbing statement—I had not previously ever imagined a lactating almond and I never again want to—refers to the agency’s current standards for products bearing the name “milk,” which are supposed to come from dairy-producing animals including cows, sheep, goats, and even camels. But with the explosion of the non-dairy market—sales of milk-free substitutes skyrocketed a remarkable 61 percent over the past five years—the industry has taken to calling all kinds of liquids “milk,” from those expressed from a flax seed to those wrung from a macadamia nut.
And the dairy industry isn’t happy about this wanton usage of their precious m-word. Last year, trade groups called on the FDA to take a stand against what they saw as mislabeling on the vegan products, claiming that such oversaturation of the market of the word “milk” would actually confuse consumers looking for a simple gallon of Grade-A good stuff. But at the time, the FDA didn’t take any action in response to the request.
The situation has only grown more urgent for producers of dairy milk. The industry is actually too productive, and such oversupply—coupled with dwindling consumer interest in the stuff—forces dairy farmers to slash their prices just to try to get milk to move off of store shelves. If the dairy industry could regain exclusive control of the word “milk,” its constituents seem to think, consumer might be inclined to bypass a product labeled “non-dairy beverage” in favor of a trusted term, thereby giving a much-needed boost to flagging sales.
The fight recalls a similar showdown kicked off by Big Meat. In May, Missouri state legislature passed an omnibus agricultural bill that, if signed into law, would ban makers of common meat substitutes from using the word “meat” in their product labeling, following various other initiatives and petitions presented to the USDA by trade groups including the US Cattlemen’s Association. These meat lobbies, parallel to the concerns of the dairy groups, have been spooked by growing sales and wider availability of meatless burgers, hot dogs, and nuggets from companies like Memphis Meats and Gardein that use the term “meat” to describe their vegetable-derived products.
In his announcement yesterday, Gottlieb said that the FDA would soon issue a guidance document outlining changes to its labeling requirements for milk and its non-dairy alternatives, following a period of public comment on the issue, but warned that the process might lag.
“This is going to take time,” he stated. “It’s not going to take two years, but it probably takes something close to a year to get to go through that process.”
In the meantime, we’ll just have to continue the daily supermarket struggle of scrutinizing product labels, trying to determine whether those cartons clearly emblazoned with images of rice, oats, and cashews are really milk, or not.