- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2018

Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb drew chuckles this month when he hinted at a crackdown on products that call themselves “milk” but aren’t drawn from an animal, quipping: “An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”

But his agency said Thursday it’s dead serious about following through, saying the proliferation of products made from soy, almond or rice “calling themselves milk” calls for a revamp in how they’re labeled.

The announcement thrilled dairy farmers, who say the rules are too lax, and frustrated soy companies who say consumers already know what they’re buying.

In a formal statement, Dr. Gottlieb pointed to reports of children developing vitamin D or protein deficiencies because their parents gave them soy- or rice-based alternatives to cow milk.

“We intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages’ nutritional contents are similar to those of cow’s milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow’s milk,” he said.

The FDA said before ordering changes, it will take a close look at how well consumers understand the differences between cow milk and plant-based milk, if labels are truly misleading and whether mandated changes would flout the First Amendment.

“We will not be doing this in a vacuum,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “We recognize that, as a regulatory agency, it’s not appropriate to unilaterally change our regulatory approach if we have a history of non-enforcement.”

John Cox, executive director of Soyfoods Association of North America, said his industry will push back on any effort to upend their labels, saying the term “soy milk” has been used commercially since the 1940s.

“Consumers are accustomed to using products with names similar to other foods, such as peanut butter, almond butter, or apple butter,” Mr. Cox said. “As we all know, these products don’t contain dairy-derived butter, but no one is confused as to the contents of either product.”

Dairy proponents, however, said the FDA should act swiftly.

“I have introduced legislation and called on the FDA to crack down on fake dairy products and I am pleased that FDA Commissioner Gottlieb has finally agreed to address this unfair practice,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat facing re-election in dairy-friendly Wisconsin. “As the FDA finalizes its enforcement policy, it is critical that it follows its long-standing definitions and protect the use of dairy terms for true dairy products — those derived from the milk our farmers work so hard to produce.”

The National Milk Producers Federation, meanwhile, said Dr. Gottlieb’s language “echoes our long-standing public health concerns regarding nutritional deficiencies in plant-based foods bearing the term ‘milk.’”

The FDA started to receive feedback on its plans at a nutrition summit it hosted Thursday. It will request more specific input later this summer or in the fall, before issuing new guidance or forcing companies to comply with new rules.

Dr. Gottlieb generally has placed an emphasis on letting consumers know what’s in their food, even if it requires regulatory changes. For instance, he defended the implementation of calorie-posting rules this year by saying it empowers consumers to make their own choices in free-market, and should not be viewed as the long arm of government reaching in.

Thursday’s push is part of a broader effort to update its “standards of identity,” or guardrails for what a food must contain to be sold under certain names, such as how many tomatoes need to be in ketchup or cherries in a cherry pie.

Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said the case is closed when it comes to milk. Federal codes describe it as “lacteal secretion,” and as Dr. Gottlieb said earlier this month, almonds don’t lactate.

“Wisconsin dairy farmers have been asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to simply enforce the laws already on the books,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m encouraged to hear the FDA will finally start enforcing milk marketing standards on non-dairy food products.”

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