Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said last month that the agency will take “a very close and fresh look” at plant-based dairy imitators that use dairy terms on their packaging, acknowledging that federal standards define milk as sourced from animals.
During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on April 24, Gottlieb responded to a series of questions posed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act last year to address the mislabeling of dairy imitators.
Gottlieb admitted that the agency has “exercised enforcement discretion” in not holding food marketers to that standard.
Gottlieb also told Baldwin that the agency “is committed to taking a fresh look about what we’re doing here” in the area of standards of identity. He said he “has actively stepped into this issue,” having heard the concerns of Baldwin and NMPF about the lax regulatory environment surrounding misbranded plant products using dairy terms.
He said the FDA is requesting more information to inform its next steps. In pushing for more immediate action, Baldwin told Gottlieb that there is no need for more information, saying, “what we need is the FDA to act, and to issue guidance on enforcement of its existing dairy standards of identity.”
NMPF has repeatedly urged federal regulators to enforce U.S. food labeling laws that exclude the ability of plant-derived foods from using dairy terms, as do other nations that also have regulations clearly defining milk.
NMPF President and CEO Mulhern thanked Baldwin “for holding the FDA accountable for its inaction on this matter, and imploring the FDA to do its job. Going forward, we need less discretion and more enforcement from the FDA.”
In related news, NMPF has expressed concern over a new labeling proposal that was submitted to the FDA requesting the use of simple vitamin letter names on both the Nutrition Facts label and Ingredient Declaration lines.
The petition, submitted by DSM Nutritional Products, proposed simplifying the vitamin names and grouping them into a single “VITAMINS” line below the ingredient list.
In submitted comments, NMPF said this grouping may be interpreted by consumers as a special “call-out” of the nutrients for which the food is a good or excellent source. NMPF suggested the issue needed to be explored further, and expressed concern that the proposal would encourage fortification by manufacturers rather than the consumption of naturally nutrient-dense foods.
For example, when comparing the vitamin declarations for whole milk and low-fat milk, the following would appear beneath the ingredient list as such:
VITAMINS: D. (for whole milk)
VITAMINS: A, D. (for low-fat milk)
Consumers could misinterpret this label as declaring that whole milk is not a source of Vitamin A because it is not noted in the vitamin declaration line. In fact, whole milk contains Vitamin A naturally, and low-fat milk is fortified to replace the Vitamin A lost when the milkfat is removed.
“This oversimplification may falsely boost the perceived healthfulness of a heavily fortified product, while minimizing the presence of naturally-occurring nutrients in nutrient-dense foods for which consumption is encouraged by dietary guidance,” NMPF said.
In its conclusion, NMPF suggested that FDA conduct consumer research on the perceptions of the labeling proposal, and that the agency go through formal rulemaking to obtain broad public comment before moving forward.