Plant-Based Labeling Called into Question

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Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requesting input on the use of dairy-related names in plant-based product labels.

While the FDA recognizes that customers might prefer plant-based products for any number of reasons, the request states that labeling plant-based products with names that are associated with entirely different products might be misleading. For instance, mozzarella cheese varies minimally between brands, but vegan mozzarella cheese has an entirely different makeup and nutritional content.

The full document says that, in addition to the name, plant-based products are often packaged in the same ways as their dairy counterparts and are sold in or adjacent to the dairy display in stores, which could lead customers to believe that dairy and plant-based products are similar in their physical properties, flavor, or shelf life.

The FDA’s request is for answers to three questions: How do you use plant-based products? What is your understanding of dairy terms like milk, yogurt, and cheese when they are used to label plant-based products? Do you understand the nutritional characteristics of plant-based products, and how said characteristics compare with dairy products?

The Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) released a statement in which they answer the FDA’s questions.

They suggest that rather than describing the dairy content, the word “milk” describes the functionality of a product—something that can be put in cereal, coffee, or a cake. They mention their own research, which shows that 78% of cow’s-milk drinkers agree that “milk” is the most appropriate term for products such as soy milk and almond milk, and that 4 in 10 households buy both plant-based and cow’s milk.

All of this suggests that people have come to terms with “milk” and “cheese” as descriptors of a use, rather than of the nutritional content, and that customers do not choose to use plant-based products because they grabbed the wrong product off the shelf, but because they want a plant-based product.

Not to mention that, the PBFA says, “Consumers know the difference between a cashew and a cow.” Cashew milk and cow’s milk might be made to serve the same purpose, but no one is equating a nut with a mammal.

The PBFA points out that the plant-based industry is growing, in part because consumers looking for a plant-based alternative to dairy products can easily find those alternatives. “Plant-based food producers offer options that consumers want and recognize,” said the PBFA. “If these food are forced to be identified by obscure, contrived names that consumers are unfamiliar with, innovation will be stifled, and consumers will be deprived of the choices they deserve.” They request that the FDA adopt policies that support both the industry and American consumers.

Based on the responses it receives, the FDA will look at next steps, which might include issuing guidance regarding the labeling of plant-based products.

Comments must be submitted on or by 11:59 PM Eastern on Nov. 27.

The full document can be found here: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FDA-2018-N-3522-0001

Comments can be submitted here: https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=FDA-2018-N-3522-0001

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