Apparently even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is on board with ‘90s nostalgia. This week, the agency effectively rebooted the nearly 20-year-old debate on whether alternative milk and plant-based drink products should fall within the definition of “milk”.
The FDA governs the proper labeling of foods, including ensuring that foods conform to a certain “standard of identity”. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb spoke at a Politico event this week, in part discussing the standards of identity used for milk in the United States. Regarding plant-based “milks”, Commissioner Gottlieb observed that there has “probably not” been proper enforcement of the agency’s standard of identity for milk.
Despite the increased consumption of alternatives, the FDA has yet to update its definition of “milk”: “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” When confronted with the reality that alternative milk products do not fit within the statutory definition, Commissioner Gottlieb cleared up any confusion by confessing, “an almond doesn’t lactate.” Accordingly, the “plant-based dairy imitators” may violate federal standards.
The Commissioner went on to state that the FDA plans on first developing guidance on notifying companies about the change and seeking public comment on how to enforce a new standard. The agency will likely issue such guidance this year.
Takeaway: Alternative milk and plant-based drink product manufacturers and marketers should keep an eye on the FDA over the coming months and create a plan for next steps if such products cannot be labeled as “milk”. Consumers should also practice ordering their coffee with “almond drink” or “soy liquid”, just in case.