US Regulator Agrees: Soy Milk is a Milk

The battle over plant-based labelling south of the border may soon be coming to an end. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its draft guidelines for labeling of plant-based milk alternatives, and concluded that soy, almond, cashew, and other plant-based milks should continue to be labeled as milk.

The dairy industry has been lobbying heavily around the world to ban vegan products from using the term “milk”. But the FDA held focus groups which showed that shoppers were not confused by the term “milk” when used by plant-based milks, and could easily tell apart dairy and plant-based milks when shopping. In its draft guidelines, the FDA also recognized that there are free speech considerations when regulating food labels. 

These draft guidelines are a major win for animals. The animal agriculture industry has been upset about vegan companies using terms like “milk”, “cheese” and “sausage” on plant-based food labels and menus, and the FDA’s decision could help put some of their arguments to rest.

This side of the border, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is currently holding pre-consultation meetings on labelling of “plant-based alternatives to dairy or egg products”, and is consulting heavily with the dairy and egg industries. The CFIA says it will take a holistic approach to plant-based product labelling, so that “standardized” terms like “milk” and “cheese” can be used in a way that is not misleading. But it remains to be seen how this guidance will be enforced. Official consultations will go live in April 2023 and will provide stakeholders, as well as members of the public, a chance to provide feedback on how plant-based alternatives may be labelled going forward. The Agency has a long history of targeting plant-based companies over labelling issues, and Animal Justice will be contributing to the consultations on behalf of animals.

Animal Justice is also currently intervening in a case about the ability of a Montreal company to use the term “cheese” on the labels of its popular vegan products. We will argue in court that it is unconstitutional in Canada to ban plant-based companies from using common terms like “milk” and “cheese”, in violation of the freedom of expression and freedom of conscience rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

As Canadians learn about the horrors of the dairy, egg and meat industries, and as they realize that there are almost no regulations governing animal welfare on farms, consumers are increasingly leaving animal meats, eggs, and dairy-based milks, cheeses, and yogurts off of their shopping lists. They aren’t confused or being tricked. Shoppers seek out plant-based products precisely because they contain no dairy or other animal products. Plant-based food is here to stay, and food regulators need to catch up with the times and stop unconstitutionally targeting the companies that are spearheading food system innovation.