Saying it’s imperative that consumers have accurate information about the food products they consume, Michigan Farm Bureau called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to vigorously enforce food standards regarding the labeling of dairy products.
By submitting formal comments to the FDA, the organization also called on the agency to prohibit the misleading labeling of nut- and plant-based food products such as “milk” or other common dairy terms, according to John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“Nut- and plant-based beverages are not held to the same standards of identity and yet they share in the benefits of using the term ‘milk’ on their labeling,” Kran said. “Consumers associate dairy foods with specific positive nutritional characteristics and those qualities do not necessarily carry over to nut- or plant-based alternative products labeled as milk, yogurt or cheese.”
MFB submitted the formal written comments in the closing days of a public comment period on an expected FDA ruling regarding the use of common dairy terms in the labeling of plant-based products later this year.
MFB’s comments took FDA’s track-record of enforcing existing dairy labeling regulations to task:
“The status quo of ‘enforcement discretion’ by FDA is not acceptable and must be addressed immediately. Through their packaging, labeling and co-location in the refrigerated dairy section, these imitation products directly compete with and are marketed as substitutes for beverage milk products. FDA has the authority to ensure that products are labeled accurately and appropriately and Michigan Farm Bureau urges them to do their job.
“It is also important to note that these products can mistakenly lead consumers to believe they are nutritionally equivalent to dairy products. Additionally, FDA already has a process outlined in the federal register for dealing with these products.
“The failure to enforce existing regulation when it comes to nut- and plant-based beverages using the term ‘milk’ in product labeling intentionally misrepresents the nutritional equivalency of these imitation products. The dairy case is now the center of products with false and misleading labels.
“When it comes to labeling these alternative beverages, FDA already has rules on the books. FDA clearly explained these guidelines as far back as Jan. 6, 1993, in a Federal Register notice.
“The process is clear: if the modified food is nutritionally inferior, as is most often the case in plant and nut-based beverages, it must bear the word ‘imitation.’ Even if the food is not nutritionally inferior, it must bear the either the words ‘substitute,’ ‘alternative’ or another appropriate term.
“While Michigan Farm Bureau is encouraged by recent comments from FDA Commissioner Gottlieb conceding that ‘an almond doesn’t lactate,’ we respectfully and urgently call upon FDA to vigorously enforce existing standards of identity when it comes to dairy to ensure a fair marketplace where consumers experience truth and accuracy in product labeling.”
While MFB supports a consumer’s right to access dairy-free products from an allergy, intolerance, or personal dietary preference, Kran says research clearly shows consumers often rely on misleading product-labeling, rather than technical information on the back of a label.
“We do not oppose other commodities developing and marketing alternative products, but our members believe those alternative products should stand on their own merits,” Kran said, adding a cautionary note for FDA regulators. “It is absolutely critical that these efforts don’t result in FDA simply changing the standards of identity for milk to include products beyond its long-standing established standards of identity, particularly for nut- and plant-based beverages that are currently in violation of these existing standards of identity.”