FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION

Got Milk? For 46% of U.S. Adults in Poll, Only if It’s From an Animal

FDA chief suggests barring plant-based beverages from being marketed as ‘milk’

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
  • The older the consumer, the more he or she opposed using the label for nondairy products.

  • Experts say FDA’s move might be happening too late to impact consumer behavior.

The Food and Drug Administration suggested last week it would begin enforcing the agency’s definition of milk, which references products that come from animals that lactate, posing a potential marketing challenge for makers of plant-based beverages that use the term.

A new Morning Consult/Politico poll suggests some consumer support for the move, with 46 percent of U.S. adults saying the label “milk” should not be used to describe nondairy beverages. The survey of 2,203 adults was conducted July 19-23, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Adults age 65 and older showed the strongest support for the FDA’s potential label enforcement (66 percent). Young adults, or those ages 18-29, showed the strongest support for allowing nondairy beverage makers to call their products “milk,” at 39 percent.

On July 17 at the Politico Pro Summit, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency plans to issue a document outlining changes to its policies that govern the marketing of milk.

“You see the proliferation of products like soy milk and almond milk calling themselves milk, and if you look at our standards of identity, there is a reference somewhere to a lactating animal,” Gottlieb said. “And an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”

The debate between dairy producers and plant-based milk substitute producers over the use of the word “milk” isn’t new. In January 2017, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) introduced a bill, S. 130, that would stop nondairy drink manufacturers from using “milk” to describe their products. However, the bill has languished since then.

A few weeks after the introduction of the bill, Capstone Law APC filed two class-action suits in Los Angeles County against plant-based beverage providers, one against WhiteWave Foods Co., which produces Silk, and another against Blue Diamond Growers Inc., which produces Almond Breeze. The Blue Diamond suit was dismissed on the grounds that “the claim of customer confusion is patently implausible,” and the other lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the FDA would be a better venue for the discussion.

Charles Lindsey, associate professor of marketing in the University at Buffalo School of Management, said Monday that the new conversation could be happening too late, given that the terms “soy milk” and “almond milk” are already a part of the consumer lexicon.

“The dairy industry has a perception that this is going to help the dairy industry and the declining sales,” Lindsey said. “But I’m not so sure there’s necessarily a clear winner and a clear loser here as a result of the FDA enforcing a more narrow identity definition of milk.”

Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications at the National Milk Producers Federation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that dairy producers aren’t contending that the average consumer confuses soy milk with cow milk.

“The issue though is that when something is called milk, it has this healthy connotation, and what we think people don’t understand is the level of disparities in nutrition,” Galen said.

In Canada, the term “milk” can’t be used for nondairy products, so many brands instead opt to call it an “almond beverage” or an alternative descriptor in markets outside of the United States, Galen said.

“The imitators will have no trouble at all with complying with the standards when the FDA enforces them because they’re already complying with those standards in other countries,” Galen said.

Jessica Almy, director of policy at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting plant-based food products, said in a phone interview Monday that “it’s pretty condescending” to say consumers don’t understand what they’re buying when they purchase almond milk or soy milk.

“A consumer is equally as likely to be confused by e-books as they are to almond milk,” Almy said.

Almy hopes once the agency starts exploring enforcement of the already defined milk label, it’ll find a compromise.

“If the FDA were to take a very aggressive approach to how these products can be labeled, it would affect not just the plant-based producers, but a wide swath of the food industry,” Almy said.

The Good Food Institute also said by email that if the FDA were to ban dairy terms on plant-based products, the group would sue.

The FDA declined to comment for this story beyond pointing to Gottlieb’s comments at the Politico event.