NMPF takes on plant-based ‘milk’ at House Ag committee hearing: ‘It’s a battle and we intend to win’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern (left) and IDFA CEO Dr Michael Dykes (right) testified at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the farm bill this week. Picture: NMPF
NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern (left) and IDFA CEO Dr Michael Dykes (right) testified at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the farm bill this week. Picture: NMPF

Related tags: Milk

While the FDA’s radio silence on plant ‘milk’ labeling implies to some that it's comfortable with terms such as ‘almondmilk,’ the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) says the agency has a legal duty to enforce federal standards of identity for milk (which limit it to the lacteal secretions of cows).

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after testifying at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the 2018 farm bill on Wednesday (watch it here​), NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern claimed there was “support from some quarters in the agency for our point of view, and there are people that understand that they are looking the other way because they have limited resources."

He added: “We’ve looked at different strategies over the years to try to move it higher up the FDA’s priority list, and finally decided that if FDA is not willing to act, we will do everything we can to have Congress direct them to act ​[via the dairy-industry-backed Dairy Pride Act​, which was introduced in January].

“We are out building support for the Act in Congress and there is a great deal of understanding and appreciation for the point of view embodied in it ​[the bill would require that non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae no longer be labeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, and would make the FDA issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of 'mislabeled' products].

"But at the same time, there are a whole host of forces on the other side, all these purveyors of fake milk are basically running around Capitol Hill pushing their case. It will be a battle but it’s one that we intend to push and pursue and we intend to win.”

We’re producing nature’s most perfect food and we want to reclaim it

But putting principals aside, does the NMPF believe that cracking down on terms such as ‘almondmilk’ will stop nut/seed/legume-based products from taking market share from dairy milk, given that these products are also taking share from dairy milk in markets such as the UK and Canada, where firms don’t use the term ‘milk’ on food labels?

According to Mulhern: “In terms of how it will play out in the US marketplace ​[if the FDA does crack down on plant ‘milks’] I don’t think anyone knows, but that is really not the main driver for us. It’s really about product integrity, because these products are nutritionally inferior to the products they are trying to emulate. We’re producing nature’s most perfect food and we want to reclaim it.”

The fact that multiple factors have contributed to the decline in fluid milk consumption (of which the growth of plant-based alternatives is just one) doesn’t mean that the NMPF should simply let the issue slide, he said.

"Purveyors of fake milk are running around Capitol Hill pushing their case"

Plant-based milks 'are all over the map from a nutritional perspective'

He added: “If a dairy processor took powdered milk and mixed it with water and added some vitamins and emulsifiers and put it on the shelf and called it milk, the FDA would say that’s not milk, so why should a manufacturer be able to take a ​[plant] protein powder and add water and vitamins and emulsifiers and call it milk just because it’s an opaque white color?”

But does this analogy really hold water given the fact that plant-based brands all include disclaimers such as ‘dairy-free’ that make it clear that they are not made from cow’s milk, while they also pre-fix the word ‘milk’ with something else (eg. almondmilk, soymilk, flaxmilk) and do not just call themselves ‘milk,’ a point made by federal judges when this issue has been tested in the courts?

Said Mulhern: “I think part of the reason for those rulings​ is a lack of clarity from the FDA, which has not enforced these standards.”

That said, the primary issue is less that consumers are being duped into thinking almond milk comes fromcows​, but that it is nutritionally equivalent​ to cow’s milk, he argued.

The purveyors of fake milk are all over the map from a nutritional perspective and right now it’s pretty much the Wild Wild West when it comes to these products.Consumers think almondmilk is a good source of protein because it’s from a nut. Well no it’s not. An 8oz glass of milk has 8g of protein whereas an almond beverage has 1g.

“They are misleading consumers by positioning their products as milk when they don’t have the same nutrition as milk does, and it’s high time that the FDA enforced regulations that have been on the book for many years.”

Absurd straw man arguments

Speaking at the hearing, he told lawmakers: “The promoters of dairy alternatives claim that the Dairy Pride Act… will interfere with the marketing of other common foods such as coconut milk, milk of magnesia, and peanut butter. 

“But these are nothing more than absurd straw man arguments meant to deter any enforcement of the current regulations. The difference is that these other products do not market themselves as replacements for real dairy foods.”

IDFA CEO: Issue is probably best resolved in the marketplace

However, Michael Dykes, CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, told lawmakers at the same hearing that the issue was “probably best resolved in the marketplace​” – a statement seized upon by the Plant Based Foods Association, which said it was “thrilled​.”

In an exchange in which Representative Doug LaMalfa (D-CA) said he was “mystified​” by the Dairy Pride Act, Dr Dykes noted that some IDFA members bottled milk and “alternative milk​,” making this a “tough issue for our membership.”

But he added: “FDA labeling policy says that foods need to be labeled to be both truthful and not misleading. So far, the FDA has not concluded these are misleading and there have been court challenges and the courts have not concluded that they have been misleading​… So we think this is probably an issue that needs to be resolved in the marketplace.”

Read our interviews with Kite Hill,Miyoko’s Kitchen​, Daiya​, Ripple​, MALK​, Califia Farms ​and the Plant Based Food Association​ to get an alternative perspective on the Dairy Pride Act, plus some legal analysis on false advertising cases surrounding plant-based ‘milk’ HERE​ and HERE​. 

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