FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the agency will move to outline standards of identity for milk, threatening the booming $10 billion U.S. nondairy milk market.
“An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” Gottlieb said on Tuesday, in a reference to the agency's current definition of milk, which identifies it as coming from lactating mammals.
“This is going to take time,” he said. “It’s not going to take two years, but it probably takes something close to a year to get to go through that process.”
The move is being hailed by the dairy industry, which has been struggling to battle declining sales as consumer interests and preferences shift. Nondairy milk sales have grown 61 percent in the last five years while traditional dairy continues to drop by as much as 11 percent annually.
Dairy producers have been eager to suppress the nondairy category; in 2017, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), introduced the Dairy Pride Act, a bill aimed at banning the word milk from nondairy products as well as other dairy terms from being used on dairy-free cheeses, yogurts, and ice cream.
"As the debate rages on, the dairy industry has claimed that plant-based product labeling confuses customers when the products aren't nutritionally equivalent to dairy-based milk," says Food Dive. "Those supporting labeling plant-based beverages as 'milk' have cited free speech rights of food producers. There is also an ongoing argument about which sector is more sustainable and climate-friendly."
But supporters of nondairy milk say the proposed rule is unfounded. According to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit focused on promoting clean and plant-based alternatives to conventional animal products, says the term “milk” should be given the same pass as gluten-free bread or rice noodles. Canned coconut milk had been widely accepted as "milk" for decades before nondairy milk products started dominating grocery store dairy sets.
The bigger issue for the dairy industry is whether or not a name change will convert nondairy drinkers back to cow's milk. Consumers seem to be more eager than ever to support alternatives to animal-based products. Changing a label seems unlikely to deter that shift.
"Consumers are likely to continue to seek out and purchase their favorites, recognizing them by brand name and packaging," notes Food Dive. "Despite official changes regarding what such beverages are called, consumers may go on calling them 'milk,' no matter what the label says."
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