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WCMA Notes: Modernizing Milk Starts with Truth in Labeling

A Column Offered by WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has opened an inquiry on plant-based products that borrow common dairy names like milk and cheese, and it’s time for our industry to respond.

FDA has opened two pathways to respond, actually.  The agency is taking a broad look at modernizing standards of identity “while making sure consumer have accurate information about those food products” with public comments due in October.

And last week, FDA focused a second request for comments specifically on plant-based food and beverages that are using common and usual names held by standardized dairy products.

Milk, Cheese Clearly Defined

It’s quite simple: a food is misbranded if its label makes a false or misleading representation with respect to another food. This core principle in section 101 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is marching order for the U.S. food and Drug Administration. And FDA has finally begun to march against the proliferation of beverages falsely representing themselves as milk.

As most dairy backers should know by now, milk has a crystal-clear definition 30 chapters later in the CFR.  “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

In July, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb now-famously stated,” If you look at our standard of identity—there is a reference somewhere in the standard of identity to a lactating animal,” he said. “And, you know, an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess.”

A week later, at a public meeting to roll out FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy, Dr. Gottlieb announced the agency will modernize standards of identity and take public comments (through October 11).  “We’ve seen a proliferation of products like soy and almond beverages calling themselves milk, and we’ve been questioned on whether we have been enforcing our act with respect to standards of identity and food names,” Gottlieb said at that July 26 meeting.

Not yet. But the wheels of enforcement are beginning to turn.

Enforcing standards means FDA must inform the makers of soy and almond and oat and macadamia nut beverages that it’s time to stop misleading consumers by using the word milk. Dairy must be ready to compete with a growing number of alternative beverages, but this free-market challenge must begin with truthful labels.

Cheese is made from milk, not from soy or other plant proteins.  The marketplace can accommodate rivals for the American palate, but a common or usual name for a food cannot be taken by another food.

Modernizing Milk

Modernizing standards of identity also offers an opportunity to encompass the lacteal secretions of other important food mammals. Sheep and goat’s milk should join cow’s milk in FDA standards, along with water buffalo and other species.

Wisconsin has approached this modern recognition of milk types in state law and in regulations for its agriculture department.  In state law, “Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, goats, or sheep.” Regulations governing “Milk and Milk Products” at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection offer a similar definition for milk, but in addition to naming cows, sheep and goats as “milking animals,” state regulations name “other hooved or camelid mammals whose milk is collected and distributed for human consumption.”

Mammals, not almonds, produce milk.  And Wisconsin’s inclusive definition of milk should be taken up when FDA modernizes standards of identity.

Milk in Cheesemaking

Modernizing standards of identity also offers a chance for FDA to comprehensively allow the use of all dairy ingredients – real components of real milk – to be used to make dairy products.

Standards of identity have lagged innovation, so the definition of milk in the federal standards of identity for cheeses mentions concentrated milk, reconstitutes milk, dry whole milk, and cheeses are also allowed to use nonfat dry milk, cream, concentrated skim milk and other dairy ingredients.

But newer innovations such as ultrafiltration of milk and microfiltration can create better yielding, more consistent cheese (see “The Time is Now for Microfiltration” in the August 3, 2018 edition of this newspaper).  Last year, FDA issued a memorandum outside of its standards of identity essentially green-lighting ultrafiltered milk for cheesemaking, and now microfiltration waits for its turn.

In modernizing standards of identity, FDA has the opportunity to simplify its description of dairy ingredients from a laundry list to something holistic, such as “components naturally occurring in milk may be used in the manufacture of cheeses.” A definition this inclusive will allow innovation and better cheesemaking to advance, and standards to remain relevant.

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