FDA officials fast-track review of use of the words 'milk' and 'cheese' in dairy substitutes

  • The FDA is stepping up its formal review of non-dairy alternatives such as almond milk.
  • Commissioner Scott Gottlieb attracted national attention when he jokingly pointed out at a Politico summit in July that "an almond doesn't lactate."
  • The agency is soliciting feedback on how the public uses and perceives plant-based dairy alternatives, such as almond milk.
Califia Farms' unsweetened vanilla almond milk
Source: Califia Farms
Califia Farms' unsweetened vanilla almond milk

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb knows that almonds don't lactate. But he wants to make sure you know, too.

The regulator Thursday said it was on a "fast track to take a fresh look" at how dairy substitutes are being used in the marketplace, particularly those that advertise themselves as "milk" or "cheese." The agency is soliciting feedback on how the public uses and perceives plant-based dairy alternatives, such as almond milk.

Gottlieb said the feedback was an important step in updating the agency's policies on using dairy terms in labeling plant-based alternatives.

"We're carefully assessing products currently on the market to determine whether any have misleading labels that would prompt us to take action to ensure that consumers are not under the misconception that their plant-based beverage is a dairy product in disguise," Gottlieb said in a statement.

The commissioner attracted national attention when he jokingly pointed out at a Politico summit in July that "an almond doesn't lactate, I will confess." "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert even induced a couple to integrate the phrase into their wedding vows in exchange for a T-shirt that said "An Almond Doesn't Lactate."

Gottlieb's lactation confession is part of a push at the FDA to consider new rules for products such as soy cheese and nut milks, out of concern consumers may not be aware of their nutritional differences.

"This can have significant health consequences," Gottlieb said in the statement, "contributing to under consumption of key nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D for which dairy products are good sources in the U.S. population."

Gottlieb did concede, in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box" this month, that "If you look up the definition of what is milk in the dictionary, the second definition is a substance derived from a nut."

That's apparently not sufficient — either for the FDA or the dairy industry, which in July urged the agency to review use of the term. That's as nondairy milk sales increased by more than 60 percent between 2012 and 2017, as sales of skim and low-fat dairy milk declined, according to market research group Mintel.

The dairy industry has spent more than $2.7 million on lobbying so far this year, according to federal lobby disclosure forms.

Consumers have 60 days to respond to the agency's request for information.

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