Agen­cies strug­gle to la­bel soy milk

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - CANDICE CHOI

NEW YORK — Dairy farmers want U.S. reg­u­la­tors to ban­ish the term “soy milk,” but doc­u­ments show even gov­ern­ment agen­cies haven’t al­ways agreed on what to call such drinks.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture “fer­vently” wanted to use the term “soy milk” in ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als for the pub­lic, ac­cord­ing to emails re­cently re­leased in re­sponse to a law­suit. That irked the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the agency that over­sees the fed­eral rule defin­ing milk as com­ing from healthy cows.

It’s “not a triv­ial de­ci­sion,” the FDA warned in one of the 2011 emails about the USDA’s de­sire to use the term.

The sour his­tory over who gets to use “milk” reaches back to at least 1997, when a veg­e­tar­ian group pe­ti­tioned the FDA to rec­og­nize the term “soymilk.” A cou­ple of years later, the group pointed out that the FDA it­self had used the term. Even now, the Na­tional Milk Pro­duc­ers Fed­er­a­tion says it’s work­ing to build sup­port in Congress for leg­is­la­tion di­rect­ing the FDA to en­force the fed­eral stan­dard. The dairy group

says both “soy milk” and “soymilk” are in­ap­pro­pri­ate, and that the one-word ver­sion is just an at­tempt to get around the def­i­ni­tion.

There are plenty of other food names at is­sue. A Euro­pean Union court re­cently ruled that a com­pany named To­fu­Town can’t de­scribe its prod­ucts as “cheese.” U.S. rice pro­duc­ers have railed against “pre­tenders” like cau­li­flower rice and have said they may take the is­sue to the FDA.

But the FDA hasn’t al­ways been able to get other agen­cies to go along, as il­lus­trated in the emails ob­tained by the Good Food In­sti­tute, which ad­vo­cates for plant-based di­ets. The group sued the FDA for pub­lic

records re­lat­ing to soy milk.

The email ex­change started when a nutri­tion ad­viser at the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices alerted the FDA that the USDA planned to use “soy milk” in ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­ri­als about di­etary guide­lines.

“USDA staff are pre­par­ing con­sumer pub­li­ca­tions and fer­vently want to use the term ‘soy milk’ be­cause bev­er­ages are widely mar­keted this way,” the ad­viser wrote.

The FDA bris­tled and pro­vided the fed­eral def­i­ni­tion of milk as a “lacteal se­cre­tion” from cows. There­fore, the FDA de­clared that re­fer­ring to soy, al­mond and rice drinks as “milk” would be incorrect. It sug­gested the other agency say “bev­er­age” or “for­ti­fied bev­er­age.”

When that didn’t put the mat­ter to rest, the FDA warned

that the USDA’s use of the term could un­der­mine the FDA’s reg­u­la­tory author­ity.

That ap­par­ently didn’t stop the USDA, ei­ther.

“They are adamant about us­ing the term in con­sumer pub­li­ca­tions,” the nutri­tion ad­viser wrote. The USDA had in­di­cated it would use “soy bev­er­age” in of­fi­cial pol­icy doc­u­ments, but it wanted to use “plain lan­guage” in ma­te­ri­als for the pub­lic.

Asked how the spat was re­solved, the USDA pro­vided ma­te­ri­als from 2011 that use both terms by re­fer­ring to “soymilk (soy bev­er­age).” The agency also uses the term else­where, in­clud­ing on its “Choose My Plate” web­site, which cur­rently says “cal­cium-for­ti­fied soymilk (soy bev­er­age)” is part of the dairy group.

The Na­tional Milk Pro­duc­ers

Fed­er­a­tion says the USDA’s us­age of the term shows that even other gov­ern­ment agen­cies are con­fused about how to de­scribe soy bev­er­ages in the ab­sence of con­sis­tent en­force­ment by the FDA.

The FDA didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

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