WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Thursday said the FDA intends to make decisions about the labeling of cow's milk and plant-based milk "in relation to potential public health consequences" as part of its program to modernize standards of identity.
In a statement before FDA's meeting on that program, Gottlieb said "plant-based foods are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for standardized dairy products," but "these alternative products are not the food that has been standardized under the name 'milk' and which has been known to the American public as 'milk' long before the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) was established."
"In addition, some of these products can vary widely in their nutritional content -- for instance, in relation to inherent protein or in added vitamin content -- when compared to traditional milk."
Gottlieb said FDA has received case reports "that feeding rice-based beverages to young children resulted in a disease called kwashiorkor, a form of severe protein malnutrition," and that there has been a report of a toddler being diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow's milk.
He added, "Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as '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."
National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said in a statement, "We are pleased to see that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has finally recognized the need to increase its scrutiny of plant-based products imitating standardized dairy foods."
"The statement released earlier today by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb echoes our long-standing public health concerns regarding nutritional deficiencies in plant-based foods bearing the term 'milk,'" Mulhern said.
"We are further encouraged by FDA's recognition that standards of identity also verify that a food must possess a 'basic nature' and measure of expectation to earn the use of the standardized name.
"We applaud Commissioner Gottlieb's assertion that FDA will take regulatory action against products bearing misleading labels. Our hope is that such regulatory actions will begin promptly and not be further delayed by the announced dairy standards review process."
But Michele Simon, the executive director of the Plant-Based Foods Association, said in a statement, "As the FDA works to modernize its standards of identity, the agency should reject this attempt by the dairy industry to misuse the regulatory system to favor one industry sector over another. What happened to the free market?"
"Consumers know the difference between a cashew and a cow," Simon said. "The dairy lobby has not offered up any credible evidence of consumer confusion.
"There's room for everyone in the marketplace. Our data shows that four in 10 households contain both plant-based and cow's milk in their refrigerator.
"Censoring plant-based milk companies would unnecessarily confuse consumers and stifle innovation while doing nothing to help the struggling milk industry.
"The First Amendment protects companies that label their foods with truthful, non-misleading names. FDA knows they will face a lawsuit if they try to enforce the current milk definition when they have not done so in decades.
"We are sympathetic to the economic challenges that dairy farms face, but changing labels won't help. It's heartbreaking that dairy lobbyists and policymakers are wasting their time on labeling instead of finding real solutions."
NMPF and PBFA both testified at the meeting, explaining their long-term positions.
Gottlieb also said that "while dairy has received a lot of attention -- there are many other standards of identity that need to be revisited and potentially modernized. After all, there are nearly 300 of these standards of identity on our books, some of which were created in my grandparents' generation."
Gottlieb said that FDA wants to hear feedback on how the agency "should assess whether a standard of identity reflects consumer expectations about that food."
"We also want to hear about changes in food technology, nutritional science, fortification practices and marketing trends that we should be aware of when reviewing and updating these standards.
"We've heard concerns that these standards of identity can sometimes cause industry to avoid reformulating products to reduce things like fat or sodium content because of the limitations of these standards, so we want to hear about how modifications in our standards can facilitate the production of more healthful foods."