FDA Appears OK with Plant-Based ‘Milk’

The agency says consumers don’t assume that the products come from dairy animals.

The agency says consumers don’t assume that the products come from dairy animals.

Grocery shoppers these days, it seems, have a lot more options to put in their coffee or cereal than just a few years ago.

In most supermarkets, the shelves near the dairy case now feature an array of plant-based extracts, made from soy, oats, nuts, hemp or other alternatives — all, in one form or another, marketed as “milk,” even though they don’t come from cows or other dairy animals.

That’s drawn complaints from the dairy industry — and from lawmakers who represent large numbers of dairy farmers — who say non-dairy milks are effectively tricking consumers.

Federal regulators, however, apparently disagree.

The U.S. Food and Drug  Administration on Wednesday issued draft regulations that would allow plant-based alternatives to continue calling their products “milk” — asserting that those companies aren’t pretending to be dairy products, and that consumers aren’t confused by them.

The rules instead call on companies to clearly identify the plant used in its products, such as oat milk or cashew milk, and, according to the Associated Press, would seek voluntary, extra nutrition labels that reflect any lower levels of nutrients than those present in dairy milk. Labels that indicate higher levels would continue to be allowed.

The National Milk Producers Federation criticized the FDA’s finding that milk represented a “common and usual name” that could be shared by plant-based rivals, but it praised the extra labeling guidelines.

And although the proposal represents a victory for plant-based milks, industry groups nonetheless complained that they are already required to list key nutrients — and that the extra labeling “admonishes” them into a direct comparison with dairy milk.

The FDA rules, meanwhile, might not necessarily be the end of the matter: the AP notes that lawmakers have previously sought to pass legislation that would require the FDA to define milk as the product of “milking one or more healthy cows” — measures that could take on greater urgency if the agency codifies plant-based milk in federal statute.

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