What’s in a Name? Standards of Identity for “Milk” & “Yogurt”

The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) is responsible for the labeling of dairy products, among other things.  In part, it regulates labels through the creation of “standards of identity,” which outline how specific words may be used.  FDA is given authority in the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FFDCA”) to enforce those standards.  Under the FFDCA, a food is misbranded if it is labeled using a word for which a standard of identity has been established, but the food does not match the requirements.  In these situations, FDA has a range of options from warning letters or a seizure of the mislabeled product up to fines or even criminal prosecution.

In 2018, FDA asked for comments about the labeling of plant-based products with names of dairy foods.  They wanted to learn more about how consumers use them and how they understand terms such as “milk” or “yogurt” when included in the product names.    

Since that time, FDA changed the standard of identity for “yogurt.”  As of this July, “yogurt” is limited to the food produced by culturing at least one “basic dairy ingredient” and any “optional dairy ingredients” along with a “characterizing bacterial culture.”  21 CFR § 131.200.  Based on that definition,  non-dairy alternatives will be excluded from using the word “yogurt.”  

The recent change to the standard for yogurt is in contrast to the standard of identity for milk, which has been in place for decades.  “Milk” is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” 21 CFR § 131.110.  Based on that definition standard, non-dairy substitutes should not be able to use the term. However, FDA has discretion to decide what standards to focus its enforcement resources on, and so far, the agency has not chosen to strictly enforce the standard of identity for milk. As a result, non-dairy substitutes made of almonds, soy, oats, or rice claim the “milk” label alongside the dairy variety. 

FDA intends to submit a draft guidance for industry regarding the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives by the end of June 2022.  The guidance, along with any changes to the regulatory standard of identity, will be important in determining whether plant-based products may continue use the term “milk.”  Just as important for dairy producers, though, will be whether the FDA intends to enforce the standards as written, or allow continued expansion of the terms.   

Rumley, Beth. “What’s in A Name? Standards of Identity for “Milk” & “Yogurt.” Southern Ag Today 1(46.5). November 12, 2021. Permalink