FDA Decision to Begin Enforcing Milk Definition Could Benefit Rice

Three real brown cows stand in field next to people in a brown cow costume, green fields & hills in background
Something's not right
Jul 23, 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced on Tuesday that his agency will be reconsidering the way it enforces the standard of identity (SOI) for milk when it comes to non-dairy beverages.  The move could prevent plant-based beverages made from soy, almond, and oats from being marketed as “milk,” and would be a boon to the dairy industry, which has long fought for consistent enforcement of the FDA’s existing regulations concerning the definition of milk and by extension, product labeling.  The development has significant implications for other foods engaged in identity battles, notably rice, which has been crying foul on what it calls “rice pretenders” such as riced cauliflower for more than one year.

“An almond doesn’t lactate,” said Gottlieb at Politico’s Pro Summit on Tuesday, referring to the fact that the federal SOI for milk specifies that it be produced by a lactating cow.  “Have we been enforcing our own standard of identity?  The answer is probably not.”

Gottlieb stated that the FDA will soon be issuing a guidance document that outlines changes to its policies for the enforcement SOI for milk and regulating the marketing of plant-based “milk” beverages.  A month-long open comment period to solicit public opinion on the issue kicks off on July 26 at a public meeting in Rockville, Maryland.

“My advice is that people get their ducks in a row and use this open comment period as a platform to weigh in on the standards issue,” said Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications at the National Milk Producers Federation, an organization that has worked hard to bring the FDA’s attention to the issue of milk pretenders.  “I think the bottom line is that Gottlieb heard a lot of footsteps from us and the dairy industry over the last eighteen months, and now he’s finally feeling more pressure to act.”

While the SOI for milk is not enforced domestically when it comes to plant-based beverages, other countries like Canada, the UK, and the EU all prohibit non-dairy products from being marketed as milk.  “These companies would be able to adapt easily,” said Galen.  “They sell the same product under the name ‘almond beverage’ in other countries and they’re doing fine.  The standard is the same all over the world.  The U.S. just chooses not to enforce it.”

“We are pleased that the FDA is revisiting its policies on ‘not milk’ products,” said Michael Klein, USA Rice vice president of domestic promotion.  “This is all about transparency and accuracy in the marketplace.  At its core, our position on rice pretenders is, I think, the same as the dairy industry’s on their imposters: they say almonds don’t produce milk; we say rice is a grain, not a shape.  We’re both right, and while there is room in the marketplace for all these other products, they should be called what they are, not what they emulate.”

Klein said his group will continue to pressure FDA for a federal SOI for rice and that they are enlisting the help of allies in Congress, the USDA, and even Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison, whose state produces about 50 percent of the rice in the United States and recently came down strongly in favor of an SOI for rice.

“International standard setting bodies, of which the FDA is a participant, have a scientifically accepted definition of rice that it is ‘whole or broken kernels obtained from the Oryza sativa L. plant,’” Klein said.  “We would expand it to include wild rices from the four species of grasses from the genus Zizania, but this is a pretty easy fix. FDA just needs to formally adopt the definition here it has already accepted overseas.”