Current Food and Drug Administration regulations define dairy products as being from dairy animals. Although existing federal regulations are clear, the FDA has not enforced these labeling regulations and the mislabeling of plant-based imitation dairy products as ‘milk’, ‘yogurt’ and ‘cheese’ has increased rapidly.
Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., chair of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, and U.S. Senator Jim Risch, R-Idaho, reintroduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to combat what they say is the “unfair practice of mislabeling non-dairy products using dairy names.” Representatives Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, are introducing bipartisan companion legislation in the House.
The Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (DAIRY PRIDE Act) of 2021 would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae to no longer be labeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.
The legislators claim mislabeling hurts dairy farmers who work to ensure their Made in Wisconsin dairy products meet FDA standards and provide the public with nutritious food. It has also led to the proliferation of mislabeled alternative products that contain a range of ingredients and nutrients that are often not equivalent to the nutrition content of dairy products, a statement from Baldwin explains.
The DAIRY PRIDE Act would require FDA to issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of mislabeled imitation dairy products within 90 days and require the FDA to report to Congress two years after enactment to hold the agency accountable for this update in their enforcement obligations. The bipartisan legislation is also cosponsored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Angus King, I-Maine, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Tina Smith, D-Minn.
Adds Baldwin: “Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced. Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers. That’s why I’m reintroducing the bipartisan DAIRY PRIDE Act to take a stand for Wisconsin farmers and the quality products they make.”
“Dairy farmers, already struggling to survive, are facing a growing threat due to the misleading practice of marketing plant-based products as milk and dairy products,” says Welch. “These products do not meet the FDA’s definition of a dairy product because they do not have the unique attributes and nutritional values provided by dairy. Our bill would require the FDA to enforce its existing definition of milk and dairy products so that consumers can make more informed choices.”
“For years I have been sounding the alarm to the Food and Drug Administration for accurate labeling in the dairy industry, only milk comes from a cow - not an almond or coconut or any other fruit or vegetable,” says Simpson.
Widespread ag industry support
“FDA must enforce its own standards and regulations to ensure the market transparency and product integrity and safety Americans need to make informed choices about what they feed themselves and their families. The medical community is increasingly voicing concerns over the negative health effects of FDA’s failure to enforce, and consumers are calling for honesty in the marketplace,” Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.
Medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics are voicing concerns over the harm this confusion is having on public health as misinformed consumers unintentionally choose less nutritious products for themselves and their families, NMPF adds.
NMPF says these legislators’ leadership brought real progress last year, including a bipartisan directive urging FDA to enforce dairy standards of identity. “We hope to build on that work in this Congress to ultimately solve this critical public health and fairness issue,” says Mulhern.
Congress has also shown a growing concern for FDA’s failure to enforce. In early 2020, the House held a hearing on the agency’s lack of enforcement. Then late last year Congress included in the report accompanying the FDA funding bill for FY 2021 a statement of concern and directive to FDA regarding enforcing dairy standards of identity.
“Consumers these days are confronted with an overwhelming number of choices at their grocery stores – and confusing or misleading labels can make already difficult purchasing decisions even harder. There’s no reason it needs to be like this. With accurate and informative labels, the DAIRY PRIDE Act will give Americans with the ability to make more informed purchasing decisions. We fully support this effort to facilitate greater transparency in the food system,” says Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union.
“Dairy farmers invest a great deal of time and money to produce a wholesome, nutritious product for consumers, and take pride in the milk they produce. The federal government has promised to ensure that the term “milk” on store shelves can only be used on dairy products. But they have fallen short on that promise. Consumers and dairy farmers alike will be the beneficiaries of this effort,” says Steve Etka, Midwest Dairy Coalition.
“For years we have been engaged on the issue to require FDA to enforce milk standards of identity, which prohibit using dairy terms on non-dairy products. We commend Senator Baldwin for her persistent efforts to hold the FDA accountable through her direct communication with FDA and the reintroduction of the Dairy Pride Act,” says Jeff Lyon, FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative general manager. “Consumers deserve transparency and want clear and accurate food labels on the food they buy. Further, our dairy farmers deserve recognition for producing such a wholesome, quality product.”
“Research has shown that customers are confused by the way dairy imitations are presented in the marketplace. Mislabeling is not tolerated in most sectors of the economy, but it is pervasive in the dairy aisle. And, the Food and Drug Administration has routinely signaled that it has no intention to correct the problem. We are excited to see Senator Baldwin re-introduce this bill, telling the makers of plant-based imitations that they need to play by the rules, while supporting real dairy products produced by Wisconsin’s farmers and processors,” says Brody Stapel, president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative.