Politics

Senators Ask ‘What Is Milk?’

Dairy industry wants to limit the word to what comes out of cows

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., wants clarity on milk, and what it is. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This morning senators asked themselves, “What is milk?” when voting on a proposal to block funding for a review of whether the word milk should be limited to products made from cow’s milk.

The Senate voted, 14-84, to defeat an amendment, offered by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, that would kill spending on a Food and Drug Administration study on what can be marketed as milk.

“Consumers are not deceived by these labels,” said Lee. “No one buys almond milk under the false illusion that it came from a cow. They buy it because it didn’t come from a cow.”

The dairy industry wants to restrict plant-based products from being called milk, hoping to put soy, almond, coconut and other milk substitutes at a competitive disadvantage.

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin called the amendment “an attack on dairy farmers” and said it would upend the FDA’s nutrition innovation strategy. Last year Baldwin introduced a measure that would ban the term “milk” for nondairy products, but it never saw committee or floor action.

“These labeling requirements play right into the hands of the large, cronyist food industries that want to place new, innovative products at a disadvantage,” said Lee in a statement last week.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency wants to bring “greater clarity” to consumers as more plant-based foods are marketing themselves as substitutes for dairy products like milk or yogurt. The agency has begun soliciting public comments on updating the “standards of identity” for a variety of foods, a process that is likely to settle the score on whether almond-, coconut- and soy-based products can be labeled as milk.

“An almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” Gottlieb said at an event earlier this week.

While Gottlieb has admitted that the dictionary definition of milk includes the derivatives of seeds or fruits in addition to animal-based products, he argues that milk might not be an appropriate name for the nonanimal products because of fundamental nutritional differences. But he acknowledged First Amendment concerns and said the process of collecting and considering public feedback before issuing new guidelines would likely take until mid-2019.

Lee’s amendment will not be included in the fiscal 2019 spending package that includes the Interior-Environment, Financial Services, Agriculture and Transportation-HUD bills.

— Andrew Siddons and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report. 

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