FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told a Senate panel on April 24 that federal standards define milk as a product sourced from animals and said his agency would be “taking a very close and fresh look” at imitation, plant-derived foods labeled with dairy-specific terms, according to the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Arlington, Va.

In response to questions from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on April 24, Gottlieb also admitted that the agency has “exercised enforcement discretion” in not holding food marketers to that standard, as a variety of plant-based foods using dairy-specific terms have proliferated in the marketplace in the past two decades.

FDA “must stop turning a blind eye toward violations of food labeling laws,” said Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO. “It needs to use more enforcement, and less discretion, as dozens of brands flagrantly violate government requirements.”

NMPF said it has repeatedly urged federal regulators to enforce U.S. food labeling laws that exclude the ability of plant-derived foods from using the term, as do other nations that also have regulations clearly defining milk.

Mulhern thanked Baldwin “for holding the FDA accountable for its inaction on this matter, and imploring the FDA to do its job.” In 2017, Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act, legislation that would compel FDA to adopt a timetable for taking enforcement action against mislabeled imitation dairy products. The omnibus spending bill Congress approved in March 2018 contains language expressing its concern that dairy labeling standards need to be properly enforced, NMPF said.

Gottlieb told Baldwin that the agency “is committed to taking a fresh look about what we’re doing here” in the area of standards of identity.” He said he “has actively stepped into this issue,” having heard the concerns of Baldwin and NMPF about the lax regulatory environment surrounding misbranded plant products using terms such as “milk,” “yogurt,” “cheese” and “ice cream,” NMPF noted.

He added that the agency is requesting more information to inform its next steps. Baldwin told Gottlieb that there is no need for further study or review. Instead, FDA needs to act, issuing guidance on enforcement of the agency’s existing dairy standards of identity, NMPF said.