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Got Real Milk? The Need for Accuracy in the Dairy Case

Zippy Duvall


photo credit: Mark Stebnicki, North Carolina Farm Bureau

The dairy aisles can be a bit of a puzzle these days due to the misleading labeling of plant and nut-based beverages as “milk.” Don’t mistake me here, everyone should have the options they are looking for, but they also need to know exactly what they are getting. According to the Food and Drug Administration, that’s not happening with dairy. Roughly one in four Americans have felt misled when reaching for a non-dairy option because the term “milk” led them to believe they were actually getting milk.

Dairy alternatives have surged in popularity recently, offering consumers a wide range of choices such as soy, oat, almond, rice and coconut. But since these products use dairy terms, like milk and cream, there has been a growing concern regarding the clarity of these labels and adherence to the standards of identity established by the FDA.

The FDA’s standard of identity serves as a defining framework for products within the marketplace to ensure consumers get what they are paying for. For example, “jams” must contain a minimum amount of fruit, and the terms “cheese alternative” or “cheese substitute,” must be used for products that don’t meet a minimum standard for cheese. However, despite the existence of a standard for milk, enforcement by the FDA has notably been absent and allowed various plant and nut-based products to use terms like “milk” without repercussions.

Consumers deserve accurate labels at the grocery store so that they can make informed choices that meet their needs

This leniency has caused confusion for consumers and raised questions about fair branding practices. The American consumer has come to know and trust the health benefits of real, dairy milk, but this mislabeling has hijacked the term and trust in quality and nutritional value that goes along with it.

Farm Bureau proudly advocates for the interests of all farmers and ranchers, including dairy farmers, almond growers, soybean farmers, coconut growers and oat farmers. We value choice in the marketplace and along with that ensuring consumers are given accurate information about the food products they choose.

Earlier this year, the FDA came out with draft guidance on dairy terms, and while it acknowledges nutritional differences in non-dairy products, it gave these alternatives permission to keep using dairy terminology. FDA also left it to the companies producing non-dairy alternatives to choose whether to include clarifying nutritional statements on their labels, an ineffective approach to providing shoppers with information important to differentiating the products they consume.

This current guidance for milk substitutes risks setting a precedent that could lead to other trusted food names being misused and misunderstood for alternative products. Consumers deserve accurate labels at the grocery store so that they can make informed choices that meet their needs. That’s why Farm Bureau is calling on FDA to amend the draft guidance and prohibit the use of terms such as “milk” on products that don’t meet the outlined standard of identity.

Our grassroots leaders, along with state and national staff, have been actively engaged in advocating for more accurate labeling practices, providing comments on the guidance, and submitting solutions adopted by other countries. For instance, in Canada and the EU, "almond milk” is labeled as “almond beverage,” providing a clear distinction.

There is also potential to get this solved within the farm bill by passing legislation such as the Dairy Pride Act, which would prohibit any alternatives from using dairy terminology on their products.

At Farm Bureau, we will always support consumers’ access to a variety of options, including non-dairy, but this issue surrounding labeling has brought to light just how important transparency and product standards are. We must continue to advocate for clarity and give consumers the freedom to make informed choices in the dairy aisle.