Officials in charge of milk safety programs in state departments of agriculture or health voted unanimously in favor of a resolution #14 at the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments (NCIMS) biennial meeting in Grand Rapids, MI, on Wednesday.
Resolution #14 seeks to “clarify the role of state milk regulatory programs” in ensuring the "proper use of standardized dairy product names for milk and milk products" under the Grade A program in light of the growth of plant-based “imitation products."
While any party to the NCIMS process (FDA officials, dairy industry reps or state agency employees) can submit a resolution, only the state representatives (representing milk regulatory agencies from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico – and not the broader membership, which includes dairy companies) vote on the resolutions.
The National Milk Producers Association - which drafted and submitted resolution #14 - said the vote was a "grassroots wake-up call from state officials that more effort is needed on this issue," while the Plant Based Foods Association said it was already engaged in a constructive dialog with the FDA on labeling conventions to ensure consumers are not misled.
NMPF: 'This is a grassroots wake-up call from state officials'
The vote follows the introduction of the dairy-industry-backed Dairy Pride Act (which urges the FDA to prohibit terms such as ‘almond milk,’ and ‘vegan cheese’), and should prompt the FDA “to work with state agencies in defending standards of identity for dairy products,” argued the NMPF.
The dairy lobby has been calling for the FDA to crack down on the use of dairy-related terms for nut-, seed-, and legume-based products for years. However, the FDA has maintained radio silence on the issue, which has been seen by many plant-based companies as evidence that the FDA does not believe consumers are being misled or confused.
Plant-based brands also point out that judges have tossed high profile lawsuits alleging that terms such as 'soymilk' are deceptive, and argued that disclaimers such as ‘soy’ before the word ‘milk’ clear up any possible confusion.
The NCIMS is a non-profit dedicated to a safe supply of Grade A milk products that works with the FDA – and comprises “persons involved in the dairy industry, from the dairy farmer, to processing plant personnel, to those persons involved in inspecting the dairy farmer’s operation and/or the processing plant, to those persons who make the laws concerning the inspections, to those who enforce the laws, to the academic researcher and adviser, to the consumer of the dairy products."
However, state agencies clearly want clarity on where things stand given that the federal standard of identity for milk restricts ‘milk’ to the lacteal secretions of cows, claimed Beth Briczinski, VP dairy foods and nutrition at the NMPF.
“The FDA needs to stop picking and choosing which regulations it wants to enforce.”
NMPF communications SVP Chris Galen told FoodNavigator-USA the vote would “certainly increase pressure on FDA to step up its work on the dairy labeling front... Through the resolution, the FDA was sent a clear message from the state-level people it works with on dairy regulation that the agency is not doing enough to enforce labeling standards."
RESOLUTION #14 OF THE 2017 NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON INTERSTATE MILK SHIPMENTS:
WHEREAS: The federal standards of identity for milk and milk products referenced in Section 1 of the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance have been established to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers and the marketplace; and
Imitation products using the names of federally standardized Grade “A” milk and milk products in their product labeling have the potential to foster consumer confusion about the relationship of these products to the Grade “A” program; and
The collaborative partnership between the FDA and state regulatory agencies is critical with respect to the enforcement of Grade 'A' labeling and the standards of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the voting delegates of the 2017 National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments request that the FDA clarify the role of State Milk Regulatory Programs in assuring the proper use of the standardized names of, and applicability of food safety requirements for, milk and milk products covered by the Grade 'A' Program.
Michele Simon: 'I am not sure how this resolution helps'
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), said the resolution was not helpful, adding: “I am not sure how this resolution helps. We continue to seek a more constructive solution by working with our member companies and appropriate regulatory officials.”
The PBFA is already in a fruitful dialog with the FDA over labeling conventions in the plant-based food & beverage industry, and had created a formal standards committee to address them, she added.
Members want “to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace,” added Simon, who said the standards committee was focusing initially on how firms might address any lack of consistency between the way plant-based milks are currently labeled (for example some say ‘plant-based beverage,’ some have a gap between almond and milk, some have disclaimers such as ‘dairy-free’ or ‘non-dairy’ next to the description and so on.)
“It’s not about a lack of compliance or a legal issue [the PBFA maintains that terms such as almondmilk are both lawful and pragmatic] but one of consistency. The real goal is to create a consistent nomenclature approach.”
No decisions have been made on terminology
But are PBFA members intent on keeping the word ‘milk’ albeit with the appropriate disclaimers (dairy free) and modifiers (almond) milk? According to Simon: “No decisions have been made at this stage regarding terminology so all options remain on the table."
Beyond the terminology, what about definitions and nutrition? Should there be standards of identity for almondmilk, for example? And should there be nutritional standards for plant-based products, given that recent lawsuits focus on the perceived nutritional deficiency of, say, almondmilk vs dairy milk]?
Again, everything is on the table right now, said Simon: "We have a meeting set up with the FDA next week and we’ll be sharing the outcomes of the first standards committee meeting with them so we can get some guidance as to where to go next.”
Next steps may include commissioning a consumer survey, she added: “We know the FDA likes to see external evidence that what you’re doing is not misleading to consumers.
"We'd hope the government would be open to an an industry-led voluntary approach rather than legislative intervention. This legislation [The Dairy Pride Act] that the dairy industry has put forth is not necessary, it's a solution in search of a problem."