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The FDA May Nix the Word ‘Milk’ From Your Almond Milk Carton

An official high up in the agency essentially agreed with her critique, Bottemiller Evich reports. The agency has “too many programs and not enough resources,” Janet Woodcock, FDA’s principal deputy commissioner, told her, “and the mismatch is profound.” As for the food division, it’s “really important, but it’s very under-resourced.” 

And yet the FDA has apparently found time to intervene on behalf of the dairy industry to deliver one of its main lobbying goals. “For too long the FDA has failed to take action to address the nutrition crisis we are facing in our country,” Booker said, referring to rising levels of diet-related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, attributed to consumption of lightly regulated ultra-processed foods. “Rather than using their regulatory authority to protect consumers, FDA instead now appears poised—in a blatant example of regulatory capture after years of dairy industry pressure—to take action solely for the purpose of protecting market share for conventional milk. I am deeply concerned by the FDA’s misguided priorities, and hope that the Office of Management and Budget will return the proposed guidance to the FDA for reconsideration.” The budget office declined to comment on its timeline for deciding on the FDA’s proposal.  

In a letter to the OMB released May 19, Booke joined forces with Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Representative Julia Brownley of California, and Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina to make a similar plea that OMB squash any plan to crack down on the labeling of plant-based milks. They pointed to a 2017 federal court decision rejecting the dairy industry’s claim that consumers can’t assess the nutritional differences between dairy and non-dairy products. 

For me, Big Dairy’s fixation on hoarding the “milk” name is as puzzling as Califf’s decision to make the topic a priority right now. Cow milk consumption has been declining for decades, since long before the almond milk surge of the early 2010s and the more recent oat milk boom. In 1945, Americans on average quaffed 45 gallons of dairy milk annually per capita, which translates to an impressive 2.3 cups daily. That turned out to be the peak preceding a long and steady downward slope. Now, 77 years later, we consume just 0.57 cups daily, and falling, nearly half of it in cereal or mixed into other beverages like coffee.

After decades as a fringe food found mainly in health food stores, dairy-free alternatives began to soar in popularity during the 21st century, and now account for 15 percent of “all dollar sales of retail milk,” according to the vegan think-tank The Good Food Institute. Even so, Big Dairy can’t blame the rise of alternatives for even the recent decline of milk. A 2020 study by USDA researchers found that the “increase in sales over 2013 to 2017 of plant-based options is one-fifth the size of the decrease in Americans’ purchases of cow’s milk.” It concluded that “sales of plant-based milk alternatives are contributing to—but not a primary driver of—declining sales of cow’s milk.” 

Nor is there evidence that America’s turn away from milk as a beverage has exacted negative nutritional consequences. Dietary intake of calcium, the product’s signature nutrient, steadily increased for all age groups between 1994 and 2010, a USDA study found, even as per capita milk consumption dwindled. Similarly, cow milk offers multiple times the protein of most of its plant-based rivals; but as we’ve turned away from it, signs of a protein deficiency in our diets have not developed. 

In short, the battle over what to call the stuff we rely on to enhance coffee and cereal looks a lot like a tempest in a cappuccino cup. The FDA has more burning issues to tend to. Like, say, the current baby formula crisis. And so does the dairy industry—including the problem of chronic overproduction

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