76% of comments to FDA support dairy terms on plant-based foods, report finds

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Dive Brief:

  • More than three-quarters (76%) of people who commented to the FDA favor allowing plant-based products to continue using dairy terms, according to an analysis by Linkage Research & Consulting commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association. Researchers reviewed 7,061 of the 11,903 comments submitted to the FDA by the January 28 deadline.
  • The analysis found 13.5% said plant-based foods should not be permitted to use terms such as “milk,” “yogurt” and “cheese” on labels and 10.5% provided comments from which their opinion on the matter could not be determined.
  • The FDA solicited public comments last September about how consumers use plant-based dairy alternatives and how they understand the meaning of terms such as “milk” and “cheese” on products not made with conventional dairy. The agency is considering restricting plant-based beverage makers from using the word “milk” on product labeling and issuing new guidance on the standards of identity for these products.

Dive Insight:

If the FDA uses the comments to dictate its next steps in the labeling debate, then these results show the agency that consumers want dairy terms on plant-based products. About 66% of commenters to the FDA did not characterize their status, but among those whose remarks were analyzed, 1,715 said they were consumers, Linkage noted. Of those, 97.4% thought the agency should allow plant-based foods to use dairy terms.

But there are still people who staunchly oppose the terms. Of the 482 who described themselves as dairy farmers or family members of dairy farmers, 99.8% of them were against the idea, according to the report. Their reasoning was because consumers think plant-based products are nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk, and they could be confused or misled if dairy terms are allowed to remain.

The confusion factor is often mentioned on both sides of this contentious issue. Dairy producers claim plant-based product labeling baffles customers when the products aren’t nutritionally equivalent to dairy-based milk. But those who support labeling plant-based beverages as “milk” have cited free speech rights of food producers. There is even an ongoing argument about which sector is more sustainable and climate-friendly.

However, Linkage noted 87% of the comments from self-identified consumers said they weren’t confused by current plant-based labels — a higher percentage than another survey on the subject from last fall. Also, 59% of those who favor keeping dairy terms for plant-based items said making labeling changes now might create confusion for consumers used to seeing them on packaging.

Conventional dairy has good reason to be concerned about plant-based competitors. Non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. increased 61% over the past five years, according to Mintel. At the same time, overall sales of dairy milk dropped 15% since 2012, hitting an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017. 

In a monthly study of consumer attitudes and behaviors relating to natural products, Linkage said its Free From Forum in March showed 34% of households reported purchasing dairy-free products, such as plant-based milk, yogurt or cheese, in the past 12 months. Their reasons included allergies, food sensitivities, desire to eat healthier and feel better or concern for the planet, the research group said.

The FDA is unlikely to make a decision based solely on the voices in the comments, especially analysis commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association, which has openly taken a side in the debate and didn’t analyze all of the comments. Without a permanent commissioner currently, however, a decision on the matter — and other simmering labeling disputes involving beef and rice — will probably have to wait longer to receive final guidance.

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