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Label change for plant-based "milk" could boost dairy industry

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As consumers around the globe increasingly turn to plant-derived options for drinks what used to come from lactating animals, the Food and Drug Administration is looking to offer an assist to dairy farmers.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is making the case for banning the word "milk" from the labels of plant-based products, citing consumer confusion.

"One area that needs greater clarity -- and which has been the subject of much discussion of late -- is the wide variety of plant-based foods that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for standardized dairy products," Gottlieb said on Thursday, while noting "a proliferation of products made from soy, almond or rice calling themselves milk."

Saying the products vary widely in nutritional content, the commissioner, who's a physician, listed cases of young children fed rice-based drinks being stricken with kwashiorkor, a severe form of protein malnutrition. Another toddler has been diagnosed with rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, after drinking a soy alternative instead of cow's milk.

The commissioner's view is in line with that of the American Dairy Association, which offers a cautionary take on plant-based alternatives on its website, "While true milk comes from an animal and contains the natural sugar lactose, there are other 'milks' sold in the dairy case, but they are not created equal."

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The notion that people are confused by products such as soy, almond and coconut milk was disputed by Danone North America, which has made the case that both dairy and plant-based products are clearly labeled with nutrition facts that consumers can use to fit their dietary needs and preferences.

"People understand the difference between dairy milk and plant-based choices and we do not believe further labeling standards are necessary, whether they are government or industry proposed," emailed a spokesperson for Danone, which sells both plant-based and dairy-derived products. "Soy milk, almond milk and coconut milk are the 'common and usual' names for these products under the meaning of FDA regulations, and multiple federal courts have ruled as much."

Danone in 2016 acquired WhiteWave Foods -- the parent of plant-based brands including Silk and Vega -- for $12.5 billion.

Further, the human nutritional need for milk from a cow diminishes greatly once one is no longer an infant or child, and about 60 percent of adults around the world have difficulty digesting it, at least the version with lactose.

The FDA held a hearing Thursday to gather public comments about the issue, part of a strategy it unveiled in March to address poor nutrition and its role in preventable diseases.

The agency has indicated that it could prohibit the use of the word "milk" on packages of plant-based beverages based on existing FDA standards on the definition of milk. That said, Gottlieb acknowledged that suddenly enforcing a rule that hadn't been enforced for years should be reviewed first.

Consumption of animal-based milk has steadily declined, falling 22 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to global figures recently released by Cargill, which produces animal feed for the meat and dairy industry. On the other hand, sales of dairy alternatives tripled from 2000 to 2016, according to the data Cargill compiled to help its customers understand the shift in consumer preferences.

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