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Congress should compel FDA to enforce butter law

American Butter Institute seeks congressional intervention to force FDA to uphold definition of butter.

Noting that the Butter Act of 1923 gives the Food & Drug Administration no leeway in enforcing a congressional statute that defines butter as a dairy product, the American Butter Institute sent letters to the chairmen and ranking members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee urging them to compel FDA to enforce federal law against plant-based imposters that illegally misuse the term “butter” as a marketing trick.

“When it comes to violations of the Butter Act specifically, Congress did not give the Food & Drug Administration any enforcement discretion on the matter,” Tom Balmer, executive director of the American Butter Institute, said in the Oct. 4 letter. “Congress stated very precisely the ingredients from which butter is to be made and its final composition. FDA’s non-action in enforcing what Congress has mandated represents, in essence, a federal agency’s rewriting of a congressional act and usurping congressional authority.”

Butter’s definition has been settled law for more than a century, covered by legislation dating to 1886. Imitators made from vegetable oils have used terms such as “margarine” and “spread,” ensuring a transparent marketplace. However, as the popularity of butter has grown in recent years – per capita U.S. consumption last year reached its highest since 1968 – marketing departments at brands such as Country Crock have been breaking the law by calling their margarines and spreads “plant-based butter” – an attempt to cash in on butter’s popularity and tarnishing a product that has had a consistent identity for generations, the letter noted.

“Words have meaning, power and consequences,” Balmer wrote. “We know this. You know this. ‘Misregulation,’ ‘confusion,’ ‘misinformation’ and ‘obfuscate’ are not terms that should be used to describe the marketing of our nation’s food supply. Accordingly, we urge you to continue efforts to compel the Food & Drug Administration to enforce the statutory definition of the term ‘butter.’”

The letter was released in conjunction with the organization’s annual conference, held this year in Tucson, Ariz. One year ago, the American Butter Institute filed a lengthy complaint to FDA in September calling out imitators.

The organization also supports the National Milk Producers Federation’s citizen petition, which the agency filed in February, outlining a roadmap toward a constructive resolution to the problem of mislabeled, fake dairy products. That petition may be accessed here.

TAGS: Policy
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