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23rd February 2023  Product update: newprotein staff writer

FDA Releases Draft Guidance on Labelling of Plant-based Milks

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials have issued a draft guidance that says plant-based beverages should not pretend to be from dairy animals – and that US consumers aren’t confused by the difference.

Dairy producers for years have called for the FDA to crack down on plant-based drinks and other products that they say masquerade as animal-based foods and cloud the real meaning of the term milk.

Under the draft rules, the agency recommends that beverage makers label their products clearly by the plant source of the food, such as soy milk or cashew milk.

The rules also call for voluntary extra nutrition labels that note when the drinks have lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk, such as calcium, magnesium or vitamin D. Example labelling is provided in the guidance.

Initial reactions from Madeline Cohen, senior regulatory attorney at The Good Food Institute (GFI) an international network of organizations working to accelerate alternative protein innovation included :

  • GFI supports commonsense labels that use terms consumers understand and themselves use. The government's role is to ensure a level playing field. FDA should not impose de facto labeling requirements on plant-based milks while giving cow's milk a free pass.

  • We applaud FDA’s recognition that consumers understand the difference between plant-based milk and cow’s milk and that shoppers choose to purchase plant-based milk specifically because it is not cow’s milk. The guidance acknowledges that consumers choose these products for a variety of reasons, including allergies, intolerances, and religious and ethical reasons. Furthermore, the guidance accurately concludes that plant-based milks bearing the term ‘milk’ in their names do not purport to be or to contain cow’s milk.”

  • Despite acknowledging consumers’ familiarity with plant-based milks, the guidance misguidedly admonishes companies to make a direct comparison between their plant-based milks and cow’s milk. The guidance is premised on the idea that consumers are somehow confused by plant-based milks’ nutrition, despite the fact that FDA already requires key nutrients to be included on the Nutrition Facts panel.

  • The guidance compares plant-based milks to one standardized milk product even though FDA has never required any particular nutrient content for cow’s milk. Milks such as unfortified skim milk and 2% reduced-fat chocolate milk have significant nutritional differences from whole cow’s milk, yet these products are not required to note them on front-of-pack labels. Moreover, the guidance urges disclosures about nutrients that are not under-consumed by Americans, such as magnesium, and even nutrients that are overconsumed by some groups, such as protein. This approach incentivizes companies to use less descriptive terms, such as ‘drink’ or ‘beverage’—which FDA recognizes are unappealing to consumers—rather than well-understood and consumer-preferred terms like ‘oat milk.’”

  • The guidance undercuts the administration's climate goals. If the U.S. is serious about meeting its climate commitments, imposing arbitrary regulatory hurdles that disadvantage the plant-based dairy industry is the last thing the FDA should be doing. Unlike cow’s milk, the production of plant-based milks is not a significant source of methane emissions, and switching to these foods is a proven way to reduce food systems emissions. Specifically, cow's milk emits more than 3 times the amount of GHG as major plant-based milks and uses 10 times as much land. Favoring cow’s milk over plant-based milk will undercut our national goals of reducing methane from agriculture and meeting global emissions targets.” More on this here.

The new guidelines are aimed at providing consumers with clear nutrition information, FDA commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement. The draft rules do not apply to nondairy products other than beverages, such as yogurt.

Download the Draft Guidance



Date Published: 23rd February 2023

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Note: This content has been edited by a staff writer for style and content.

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