Recently, the Food and Drug Administration proposed enforcing its own labeling rules for milk and similar plant-based products at the behest of the dairy industry, which could change the way that milk and milk alternatives are labeled.
The FDA defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows,” but over the years the FDA has not enforced the definition on non-dairy milk alternatives that are increasingly hitting the shelves. The enforcement of the definition could lead to dairy-free milk alternatives like almond milk or soy milk being forced to change how these products are labeled.
This stirred up a little debate between staff writers Brianne Ostrander, who is for enforcing the definition of dairy, and Coy Gobble, who believes it should all just fall under common sense.
Have you ever stood perplexed in front of the milk section of the grocery store, paralyzed with decision because you can’t tell the difference between almond milk, soy milk and whole milk? No? Well the FDA seems to think you are, or at least are willing to pretend they think you are.
The FDA, who is tasked with protecting consumers- not corporate market shares, proposed in July that no product could use the word “milk” on a label unless the substance inside was a “lacteal secretion…obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Former FDA Chief Scott Gottlieb noted at the time that “an almond does not lactate.”
No, an almond does not lactate, that is true. But a better question to ask of the definition of milk is what exactly is a healthy cow? The majority of milk distributed in the US is from factory farms that pump their cows full of antibiotics and growth hormones, robo-milk cows that have mastitis, or an infection of their udders, and do not let the animals leave their stall that is surrounded by their own filth. I don’t think I would go as so far as to call these animals healthy. This is a far cry from the pictures of happy grazing cattle that those corporations will show you on their websites and advertisements.
So if the cows are not healthy but milk is still taken from them, what would we call them under the new enforcement? Unhealthy Cow Beverage? 2% Bovine Drink (the 2% is how much pus and blood is in the drink)? Also the enforcement of the aforementioned definition would expel all other milks from other animals, like goats, from calling their product milk.
An argument used to further the FDA’s enforcement of the flawed definition is that these dairy alternatives to cow’s milk don’t offer the same nutritional profile that milk does. This doesn’t make much sense for the dairy industry again as it would open the possibility that skim milk couldn’t be called milk since it does not have the same nutritional profile as whole milk. Also the cutting edge of the dairy industry is Fairlife, a milk product made by the Coca-Cola company that filters milk to add more protein or take out sugars. Since that certainly doesn’t have the same nutritional profile as regular milk would that have to be called Creamy Coke?
If the definition is enforced, what’s stopping the FDA from doing the same thing with butter or yogurt? Peanut butter and butter are completely different products that share the same name, almost a perfect parallel from almond milk vs regular milk debate, and I have never see a confused consumer trying to grease a pan with peanut butter.
It’s been since the 1600’s that people have called white opaque liquids from plants and vegetables “milk”, there’s really no better descriptor. Francis Bacon, the creator of the scientific method, said in 1626, “there be plants, that have a Milk in them when they are Cut,” and Encyclopedia Britannica said that liquids from vegetables may be called milk 150 years later. To change all of this because the dairy industry wants to make more money is insane.
That fact of the matter is that the hoopla around the labeling of milk and dairy alternatives is because of the dairy industry lobbying governmental agencies so that it can artificially protect its dwindling market share by making their competitors products less appealing, not because consumers are being mislead. And it seems that FDA is willing to define products it regulates in bad faith. It’s the best strategy for any multi-billion dollar industry as it is much cheaper than innovating and being honest with its consumers.
Milk is a beverage. Beverages, as well as food in America is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA defines milk as a “lacteal secretion” from cows.
This I believe, is the foundation of where milk, and milk alternative, labeling should be based.
Over the last two years I have worked as a reporter for The Daily Review I’ve had an opportunity to be educated about the current hot topic of whether milk alternatives, such as soy and almond, should be eligible to be labeled as “milk” when sold.
Part A of why I believe products made of soy, almond and the like should not be labeled as milk lies with how we treat law.
Law already states that non-dairy alternatives can not be labeled as milk — the FDA has just not been enforcing the law.
While I understand precedent plays a part in how laws are carried out, simply ignoring one by neglecting to enforce it seems like a fault in our legal system — shouldn’t the government either follow our laws or change them? What if we suddenly decided to ignore the repercussions of breaking other, more hefty laws?
Picking and choosing what federal laws can be broken continuously without consequence seems like a weary road to start down.
Which brings me to part B; why I believe current milk labeling laws should remain and be enforced.
The current definition of milk established by the FDA is “the lacteal secretion...obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” (www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2018-title21-vol2/xml/CFR-2018-title21-vol2-part131.xml#seqnum131.3)
While debate continues long and hard about whether dairy or alternative products are “healthier” (which varies greatly depending on what you’re considering as healthy, whether you’re looking at fat, caloric, carbohydrate, vitamin and nutrient contents or another factor) the argument isn’t grounded in what product is better for the body — it’s grounded, I believe, in honest marketing.
Milk, for decades, has been standardized by the FDA as being dairy, therefore consumers expect dairy when they hear “milk.”
Be it for better or for worse, plant based beverages differ greatly in contents from dairy, and “can vary widely in their nutritional content,” according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.
Labeling such as milk, which has been standardized as dairy, can lead consumers to believe they offer the same nutrition as dairy when they simply do not.
When dairy is required to be labeled accurately down to even how pasteurized it is and if and what vitamins are added, how can we make an exception for entirely different substances to be categorized the same?
Milk labeling isn’t so much of an argument of what product is healthier, it’s a fight for marketing integrity to properly and honestly inform consumers of the actual product they are purchasing.