A rose by any other name: What to label alternative ‘dairy’ and ‘meat’ products?

The dairy and meat industries have been abuzz in recent years about the matter of names. Can alternative “dairy” products truly be called dairy? After all, we’ve always called the liquid inside of coconuts “milk,” even though coconuts assuredly don’t lactate. Similarly, can plant-based or lab-grown “meat” products use “meat” in their names?

It’s a debate that’s been waged on the farm, in the processing plant and on the supermarket shelves — and also regulators’ offices.

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), weighed in on the matter in a recent statement in which he addressed the labeling of plant-based “milk” 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.

Though the plant-based foods Gottlieb talks about may be healthy and nutritious, the concern is that consumers might assume, based on labeling, that a vegan “cheese” product might offer the same benefits as cow’s milk cheese, when really their nutritional content might differ. Gottlieb suggests that this might contribute to under-consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, especially in children.

At this time, the FDA isn’t making changes to regulations, but says it’s “working on modernizing our standards of identity” regarding categories of food referenced in regulation, in part by opening a petition to solicit public feedback.

Others say that these products are differentiated enough from traditional dairy and meat through other parts of their branding, like the terms “plant-based,” “vegan,” and through pictures. They also say that the names make sense when you consider other needs consumers have — if a vegan customer is looking for something to spread on their toast, they’ll seek out a vegan product with “butter” in the name.

Similar questions arise in the meat industry, where lab-grown meat and plant-based “bleeding” burgers that are supposedly indistinguishable from real meat are inching closer to retail shelves.

Dan Kovich of the National Pork Producers Council proposed a scientific-sounding term for lab-grown meat: “lab-produced cultured protein.” Others have suggested the term “clean meat,” but producers object to that for its implication that traditional meat is dirty. “Cell-based meat” is another proposed term.

A survey by Consumer Reports shows that about 40% of Americans think these products shouldn’t be called “meat,” while about 50% say they can be labeled “meat” if accompanied by an explanation about how they were produced.

In October, the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a joint meeting, called “The Use of Cell Culture Technology to Develop Products Derived from Livestock and Poultry,” on the matter. (You can listen to part of the meeting’s discussion period here.) During the public meeting, industry members called for the agencies to help regulate labels for these products, which Drovers reports would fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction if not considered meat, but would fall to USDA if they are called meat.

It may seem like a matter of semantics to some, but clear labeling of these new and newly popular food products is considered key to many in helping consumers understand what they eat. What labels will become common, though, is something we might not find out until these products have spent some more time on the grocery shelves.

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