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Can you call the liquid extracted from almonds, soybeans or rolled oats “milk”?

The Food and Drug Administration said, yes, in a draft guidance released this week.

The dairy industry, and members of Congress from dairy states like Idaho, have argued for years that writing “milk” on food labels should be reserved only for milk that comes from animals.

They’ve called on the FDA to “crackdown” on companies that call their increasingly popular plant-based alternatives “milk.”

The agency began an inquiry in 2018 into how it should go about labeling. It received over 13,000 comments and held focus groups.

“Largely, the question is, ‘Are consumers aware of what they’re buying?’” said Jason Winfree, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Idaho.

In its announcement, the FDA said consumers are indeed aware that almond milk does not come from cows. In fact, that’s sometimes why they seek such plant-based options out.

Still, dairy producers have expressed concern that those products are not adequate substitutes for milk, as they don’t contain the same nutritional value.

“Dairy imitators’ use of those terms is confusing and potentially harmful to consumers, and it needs to stop,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said in a statement when he sent a letter to the FDA last year.

The FDA’s report said consumers are sometimes confused when comparing the nutritional values between dairy and plant-based milk, so it’s suggesting almond and oak milk brands, for example, voluntarily include extra labels describing how their nutrient composition is different.

The motivation for seeking label changes on other products could largely be about competition, Winfree said.

“If they can convince people that the milk from plant-based food isn’t as good, isn’t as healthy, then that’s going to increase demand for cow milk producers,” he said.

In a statement, U.S. Senator Jim Risch from Idaho said the FDA’s guidance could hurt dairy farmers.

Still, only about 3% of milk from Idaho cows is sold in jugs at the grocery store; most ends up in cheese or other products.

The FDA is accepting public comments on the draft guidance for two months.



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