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Got oat milk? Welch and Vermont dairy farmers push back on FDA's plant-based beverage guidance

Researchers are learning more about how to treat milk allergy by giving kids a small amount of milk protein, but it needs further study.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released draft guidance in February 2023 that would allow plant-based beverage manufacturers to continue using the word "milk."

Milk doesn't have to come from a cow to be labeled as such in a grocery store.

That's according to recently released draft guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency says plant-based beverages like almond milk, or drinks made from oats or soy, can also be labeled as "milk."

The FDA says they found consumers "generally understand" that plant-based milk alternatives do not actually contain milk, and that terms like soy milk are well-established in common usage.

The news isn't being received well by Vermont dairy producers. And U.S. Senator Peter Welch thinks the FDA got it wrong.

Tuesday, as a response to the FDA draft guidance, Welch co-sponsored legislationthat would prohibit companies from using dairy-related terms to describe plant-based products.

"The Food and Drug Administration is really in violation, I think, of their own regulations on definitions, and we want to stand up to protect that really important label of what milk is and our dairy farmers produce," Welch said.

The bill, which is led by lawmakers from other dairy-producing states, would define milk as the product "obtained by the complete milking of one or more hooved animals." Welch said the bill was drawn up to maintain the integrity of the dairy label.

"Consumers are entitled to it and our farmers are entitled to it," Welch said. "And the FDA should be providing an accurate definition of what dairy is. And other products have their own appeal, but they're not dairy."

A photo of people around a long table holding of bottles of chocolate and regular milk.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, center left, and Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, center right, lead a toast to Vermont farmers during a roundtable discussion in St. Albans on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

Previous coverage from Vermont Public, 2021: Welch introduces bill that would restrict labeling of milk to dairy products

Vermont dairy farmers aren't pleased with FDA's draft recommendations.

"Milk is bovine milk. And advertising a product as milk is false advertising," said Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Maltby said the new guidance doesn't represent the interest of the consumer, nor Vermont's dairy farmers.

"If you like a plant-based beverage, drink a plant-based beverage. but call it that," Maltby said. "Don't call it milk."

Maltby said the FDA guidance may also cause confusion if plant-based beverage makers place their products next to milk in the dairy case.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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