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By Allen Sayler, Senior Director for Food Consulting Services

When FDA announced recently that the agency is seeking public comment for standards of identity overhaul that will focus in part on plant-based products that are marketed as “milk” substitutes, manufacturers of those products as well as the consumers who enjoy them were left wondering how this review and any future changes would affect them. Consumers of soy, almond, rice, coconut and other plant-based “milk” enjoy these dairy alternative products for any number of reasons, but in some cases, their consumption decisions are based on incomplete or inaccurate information and may result in a diet deficient in certain nutrients found in dairy milk but not the substitute protein. This issue is of interest to others outside of the US as Canada, the European Union and Codex all have laws, regulations and beverage standards that limit the use of the term “milk” to only beverages where dairy “milk” is the major or characterizing ingredient.

There are nearly 300 standards of identity on the books at FDA, and these plant-based proteins which use qualified terms as part of their “milk”, “yogurt” and “cheese” product names aren’t in-fact “milk” as we have come to know it. Based on this technical violation of the standard of identity for “milk” and a concern regarding consumer misunderstanding of the nutritional value of plant-based beverages, FDA has decided to look at the term milk as part of its overall effort of modernizing standards of identity and improving information provided to consumers and their physicians so that the nutritional composition and benefits of products is clear.

FDA is currently seeking information on how consumers understand the term “milk” and whether the nutritional differences between dairy-based and plant-based “milk” products is understood. FDA is also trying to understand if the use of the term “milk” in non-dairy products is misleading and if that lack of understanding plays a role in less informed dietary choices. Stakeholder feedback is actively recruited by the agency and, based on initial comments gathered, FDA will provide an additional request for information in late summer or fall targeted more directly towards consumer awareness and understanding of the use of milk and other dairy terms on plant-based alternatives, including a focus on nutritional impact. The agency will use this feedback to refine its policy for these standards of identity and will issue new guidance for industry as well as their compliance and enforcement approach (no timeline is currently established). 

In addition to gaining an understanding of milk products, the agency is additionally seeking feedback on how the agency should consider food technology, nutritional science, fortification practices and marketing trends for not only dairy but all foods as part of their standards of identity review to gain an understanding of how each may enhance or stymie innovation or nutritional improvements.

As manufacturers of foods, standards of identity can at times protect the consumer and food industry from misleading or fraudulent foods, food ingredients, and labels, but they can also hinder efforts at product innovation, use of new ingredients and processing technologies and restriction on modification of the standard to improve nutritional content. Understanding food labels, content, nutritional value and product claims are all critical for consumers to make informed choices today. It is equally important for food manufacturers, who are committed to providing cleaner food labels while trying to deliver more nutritionally sound food into the US marketplace.

Regulatory opportunities, headwinds, and challenges will be facing the Agency as it begins to review and potentially revise the current food standards of identity. As the agency seeks comment, now is the time for food firms to provide their input and begin the conversation as to how technology, fortification, and sound science need to be considered in the review and revision process, to the benefit of the consumer, food industry and FDA. As an innovation for a healthier food supply continues to evolve, the ability to clearly communicate an improved and clear message of food content and nutritional value will enhance consumer understanding and allow for more informed choices. Formulating agency feedback can help to effectively lead awareness of those opportunities and challenges. Incorporating sound scientific assessments, food processing technologies and market research on consumer perceptions and trends incorporated into well-written comments can enhance a firm’s position. EAS independent consultants, toxicologists, microbiologists who are experts in dairy, plant-based beverages and FDA food standards of identity and labeling can help you to formulate your position and develop agency comment.

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