July 26 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food & Drug Administration is reviewing the use of the term milk in marketing for plant-based products, FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said on Thursday.
Gottlieb said in a statement that the federal agency is looking at the labeling of white beverages from a health standpoint.
Last week, at the Politico Pro Summit, he said the the Trump administration was considering cracking down on the term "milk" for use when describing nondairy products, including soy, rice and almond beverages.
After his statement was released, the FDA also conducted a meeting Thursday to discuss the agency's Nutrition Innovation Strategy, including comments from the public. Producers of these non-animal "milk" beverages are opposed to the change.
The agency plans to issue a guidance document outlining changes to standards of identity policies for marketing milk.
"We've seen a proliferation of products made from soy, almond or rice calling themselves milk," Gottlieb said in the statement. "However, these alternative products are not the food that has been standardized under the name 'milk' and which has been known to the American public as 'milk' long before the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was established."
He noted that these beverages can vary widely in their nutritional content -- including protein or in added vitamin content -- when compared with traditional milk.
"We intend to look at these differences in relation to potential public health consequences," he said. "There are reports that indicate this issue needs examination."
Gottlieb noted there are case reports that feeding rice-based beverages to young children has resulted in a form of severe protein malnutrition called kwashiorkor. He also said a toddler was diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after parents used a soy-based alternative to cow's milk.
"Because these dairy alternative products are often popularly referred to as 'milk,' we intend to look at whether parents may erroneously assume that plant-based beverages' nutritional contents are similar to those of cow's milk, despite the fact that some of these products contain only a fraction of the protein or other nutrients found in cow's milk," he said.
The commissioner wants "an active public process for reviewing our standard and how consumers understand the use of terms like milk on both animal-derived and plant-based products."
The Plant Based Foods Association, which includes Daiya and Follow Your Heart, is strongly opposed to the change.
"As the FDA works to modernize its standards of identity, the agency should project this attempt by the dairy industry to misuse the regulatory system to favor one industry sector over another," Michele Simon, executive director of the association, told Food Navigator-usa.com. "What happened to the free market?"
"There's room for everyone in the marketplace. Our data shows that four in 10 households contain both plants-based and cow's milk in their refrigerator."
The group noted that the plant-based milk category was up 3.1 percent in late 2017 from a year ago, according to data from Nielsen.
Boulder Sun, a Colorado company that makes "sunmilk," a beverage derived from sunflower seeds, has a trademark pending on the with the Federal Trade Commission and its owners are concerned about the potential effect a change could have on year-old company.
"It's frivolous and it's not fair to small producers," Jordan Marinovich, CEO of Boulder Sun, told Westword about the FDA's possible change. "You're pulling the rug out from under a whole established industry."
The National Milk Producers Federation welcomed the move by the FDA as it has long been opposed to products that are not derived from animals being referred to as milk.
"We are pleased to see that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has finally recognized the need to increase its scrutiny of plant-based products imitating standardized dairy foods," Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO said in a statement. "We are further encouraged by FDA's recognition that standards of identity also verify that a food must possess a 'basic nature' and measure of expectation to earn the use of the standardized name.
In 2000, the group started lobbying beverage associations to stop using the term as soy milk became popular. NMPF spokesperson Chris Galen told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the group was concerned that other plant products would also pick up on dairy terms beyond just milk -- products, Galen points out, that are not made from actual milk.
"Sure enough here in the intervening 18 years we've now seen an explosion of plant products displaying the term milk," Galen said.
Last year legislation was introduced in Congress to "prohibit the sale of any food that uses the market name of a dairy product, is not the milk of a hooved animal, is not derived from such milk, and does not contain such milk as a primary ingredient." The bill, however, never made it out of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.