'Milk's milk': Farmers react to new FDA guidance on labeling plant-based milk alternatives

’Milk’s milk’: Farmers react to new FDA guidance on labeling plant-based milk alternatives

WEST BEND, Wis. (CBS 58) -- A second-generation dairy farmer at Golden 'E' Dairy Farm in West Bend, Ryan Elbe has spent a lot of time around milk.

"There's a lot of pride in the dairy industry," Elbe said. "The fluid milk market, it's its own niche. It's very competitive and it's hard."

Late last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance regarding the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives.

The guidance indicates oat milk, almond milk, soy milk and other alternatives can be labeled as 'milk' but must clearly identify their plant source. The guidance also calls for voluntary labels that would reveal if the product has fewer nutrients than dairy milk.

"It seems like they're just kind of not taking a side on it," Elbe said, discussing the FDA's draft. "They're just kind of going down the middle and being like 'I don't want to upset one or the other.'"

Plant-based milk has been growing in popularity over the last decade. According to the FDA's research, in 2010, one-fifth of U.S. households purchased or consumed plant-based milk alternatives. In 2016, that number changed to one-third of U.S. households with sales totaling $1.5 billion. Sales increased nearly 15% from 2017 to 2019, reaching $2 billion.

The FDA also acknowledged in its report consumer studies indicate a majority of consumers understand plant-based milk alternatives do not contain milk.

"We were really happy to see the FDA recognize that consumers understand plant-based milk labeling," said Madeline Cohen, senior regulatory attorney for Good Food Institute, a non-profit focused on advancing alternative proteins. "No one's really calling these products 'oat drink' or 'almond drink.'"

The guidance also acknowledges consumers purchase plant-based milks for a variety of different reasons, something Cohen says is important.

"Some might choose these because they have allergies or other lactose intolerance. Other people choose plant-based milks for ethical or lifestyle reasons," Cohen said. "It is important that shoppers have a variety of options at the grocery store and also that those options are labeled in a way that consumers easily understand."

Cohen says the voluntary labels could lead to some confusion for shoppers.

"Shoppers are smart enough to know that different products are going to contain different nutrients," Cohen said. "They're just more likely to confuse consumers than help them."

She went on to say those labels are unfair for plant-based products.

"This new nutrient labeling scheme puts unfair onus on plant-based milk that isn't placed on any other type of milk product," Cohen said. "Two-percent chocolate milk, unfortified milk; these are all products that have pretty significant nutritional differences from whole cow's milk, but none of those products are going to be required to call out those differences on their labels."

Last week, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jim Risch (R-ID), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Peter Welch (D-VT) introduced bipartisan legislation to 'combat the unfair practice of mislabeling non-dairy products using dairy names.'

Wisconsin's dairy farmers produces second-to-none products with the highest nutritional value and imitation products have gotten away with using dairy's good name without meeting those standards," Senator Baldwin said. “The Biden Administration’s guidance that allows non-dairy products to use dairy names is just wrong, and I’m proud to take a stand for Wisconsin farmers and the quality products they make. Our bipartisan DAIRY PRIDE Act will protect our dairy farmers and ensure consumers know the nutritional value of what they are purchasing.”

Elbe says he's grateful to see lawmakers from both sides of the aisle working to protect the product his family-run farm continues to produce day after day.

"They (lawmakers) know the true impact agriculture and dairy has on the state of Wisconsin," Elbe said. "They're going to back the dairy industry, hopefully willingly, as much as they can."

Elbe says he would like to see the FDA take a firm stance on defining milk.

"Milk's milk, the other stuff's just an alternative product. Label it as it is. Just be square with the consumer," Elbe said. "Whether it's milk or any other product on a store shelf."

Those looking to view the FDA's draft guidance, or submit public comments, can do so HERE

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