The Food and Drug Administration is moving forward with possible changes that could prevent plant-based products from using traditional dairy nomenclature.

The move will serve as welcome news for dairy advocates who have been calling for such action for years, but retailers of plant-based beverages are likely to litigate any action that would force changes to the labeling of their products.

The announcement came in the form of a request for information (RFI) scheduled to appear in the Federal Register tomorrow. In a statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said FDA was taking the action to address nutritional differences in dairy and plant-based products.

“The FDA has concerns that the labeling of some plant-based products may lead consumers to believe that those products have the same key nutritional attributes as dairy products, even though these products can vary widely in their nutritional content,” he said. “It is important that we better understand consumers’ expectations of these plant-based products compared to dairy products.”

Gottlieb went on to say the differences in nutrition “can have significant health consequences” and “lead to under-consumption of key nutrients.” The effort comes as part of broader work on “modernizing our standards of identity,” he said.

“We’re interested to know if consumers are aware of, and understand, the nutritional characteristics and differences among these products -- and between these products and dairy -- when they make dietary choices for themselves and their families,” Gottlieb said.

The trade group representing the dairy industry welcomed the news in a release. Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, expressed in a statement his hope that the comment process "will finally curtail the misleading labeling practices of plant-based foods imitating real dairy products."

"We are pleased that after years of engagement with FDA, the agency is finally addressing our concerns about how these plant-based products are inappropriately marketed to consumers," he said. "Quite simply, just adding plant protein, calcium and a few other ingredients to water does not make it milk."

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A statement from the Plant Based Foods Association asserted a belief that FDA’s concern over consumer confusion will be addressed in the review process.

“Consumers know the difference between a cashew and a cow,” the group said. “The dairy lobby has not offered up any credible evidence of consumer confusion. In fact, our data shows that four in 10 households contain both plant-based and cow’s milk in their refrigerator. There’s clearly room for everyone in the marketplace.”

Advocates for plant-based foods have threatened to sue if forced to relabel their products.

The RFI will be open for 60 days following publication in the Federal Register.

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