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FDA Asks for Consumer Input on Labeling Plant-Based Products, NPA Responds

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a request for information as it examines its approach to the use of dairy food names like “milk,” “cheese,” or “yogurt” in the labeling of plant-based foods and beverages.

Earlier this year, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS) in a speech to the National Food Policy Conference. The strategy promotes public health through efforts to empower consumers to make better and more informed decisions about their diets and health, fostering the development of healthier food options, and expanding the opportunities to use nutrition to reduce morbidity and mortality due to chronic disease.

As part of its strategy, the FDA is considering approaches to modernize standards of identity, which are regulations that set forward requirements for the content and sometimes the methods used to produce certain foods.

According to the FDA, many dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and certain cheeses, have standards of identity set by regulation. The regulations were established under the foods’ common or usual names, such as “milk,” “yogurt,” and “cheddar cheese.” These names have continued in common usage and are recognized by the American public as identifying the dairy foods described in the standards. More recently, these names have appeared in the labeling of plant-based products as part of the name or statement of identity of the product.  Some examples include “soy milk” or “almond milk” and “vegan mozzarella cheese.”

The FDA noted that it supports choice and innovation in the marketplace and recognizes that some consumers may prefer to use plant-based products instead of dairy products for a variety of reasons, including an allergy or lifestyle choice. But the FDA has concerns that the labeling of some plant-based products, which can vary widely in their nutritional content, is leading consumers to believe that those products have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products. And the agency wants to make sure that labeling plant-based products with names that include the names of dairy foods is not misleading to consumers.

So the FDA is soliciting public input to answer the following 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? Do you know how they’re different from each other? Do you know how their nutritional qualities compare with dairy products?

Over the next year, the FDA will be looking at next steps, which will include issuing guidance for industry. This would clarify FDA’s thinking regarding the labeling of plant-based products with names that include the names of dairy foods while giving manufacturers adequate notice about any changes.

In response, the Natural Products Association (NPA) urged the FDA to protect commercial free speech as it considers changing its labeling requirements for products that use dairy names to describe plant-based products such as “soy milk” and “almond milk.”

“Consumers deserve access to accurate and meaningful information about the products they use each and every day. As the FDA considers making changes to the ways many popular products are labeled and branded, we urge the agency to also consider the impact they could have on commercial free speech,” said Daniel Fabricant, PhD, president and CEO of NPA. “Before placing restrictions on commercial free speech, the government must prove there is a substantial risk to consumers.  We are optimistic the FDA’s process will lead to an outcome that both protects consumers and ensures the producers of natural products and plant-based foods are not burdened with unnecessary regulations.  We look forward to working with the FDA on this issue and submitting formal comments.”

Comments must be submitted on or before 60 days after date of publication in the Federal Register. To submit electronic comments, visit www.regulations.gov. Written comments must be sent to: Docket Management Staff (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Ln., Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.

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