Issue in Focus
Sep 14 2018
The American food industry has seen incredible innovation over the last several decades. Not only is healthier, safer food more accessible and affordable than ever, but whole new foods are being offered. Safe, tasty alternatives to meat, dairy, gluten, and eggs are now ubiquitous, especially plant-based dairy alternatives like almond, soy, and coconut milks.
This should be the kind of story Americans celebrate, an example of American entrepreneurship and innovation at its best. It should be – but isn’t. Consumers may like milk alternatives, but politicians seem opposed.
According to a proposed rule from the Food and Drug Administration, these products don’t “count” as milk and must either be renamed or pulled from grocery store shelves.
Under an antiquated 1938 law, the FDA has the power to set “standards of identity,” rules defining what does and does not qualify as a particular food product. And according to the FDA, the word “milk” can only describe “lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”
And so, the FDA wants to crack down on milk alternatives. They say it’s for consumer safety. The facts suggest otherwise.
First, standards of identity have a history of non-enforcement. To start picking and choosing which of the 280 outdated definitions to enforce now would seem arbitrary, or worse.
Part of the reason these rules haven’t been fully enforced is that the regulations themselves haven’t kept pace with many of the modern food innovations over the years. Furthermore, today food products are required to include ingredients on the label. Consumers know what they’re buying and eating.
So what is the real reason for the sudden crackdown? As with so many things in Washington, follow the money.
Dairy sales have been falling since the 1970s and dramatically over the past seven years, while the market for plant-based alternatives has only grown. Between 2011 and 2015, the total milk market shrunk by more than $1 billion; and almond milk sales alone grew by 250%.
Proponents of the FDA’s proposed rule call these products an “attack” on dairy farmers. And therein lies the real motive: to stifle competition and prop up the dairy industry.
The FDA crackdown is just a classic example of cronyism – big business conspiring with big government to rig the economy for them and against their customers.
A few weeks ago, I introduced legislation that would protect standards of identity regulations from this kind of abuse. My amendment to the farm bill would have prevented the FDA from enforcing these rules against products simply because of their use of a common compound name, and so protect everything from “almond milk” to “cashew butter” and “gluten-free bread” from silly accusations of illegal labeling.
Unfortunately, 84 Senators voted against this common-sense reform – Republicans who preach fealty to the free market, and Democrats who insist they fight for the “little guy” against Big Business. In a few months, when the Feds yank soy milk from the shelves, or force you to buy a delicious quart or “liquid legume excretion,” you’ll have them to thank.