The FDA is in no rush to decide whether soymilk can be called "milk"; one petition has been pending for 20 years.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated September 05, 2017

"Milk" is something you'd think everyone would understand. We're drinking it literally from the moment we're born. But the rise of "plant-based milks" or "alternative milks" is continuing to drive a debate on what should be allowed to actually be called "milk." Earlier this year, some members of Congress supported legislation that would restrict the term milk to only "dairy milk" (or milk that comes from a mammal). Meanwhile, in June, the E.U. upheld regulations doing exactly that, protecting not only the word "milk" but also terms like "cream," "butter," "cheese" and "yogurt." The stakes might be higher than you think: Sales of almond milk alone are around the $1 billion mark.

As tensions flare between traditional dairy producers, who argue that misuse of dairy terms misleads consumers, and plant-based milk producers, who believe that consumers knows that soy milk doesn't come from a cow, you'd think that one of the most powerful government agencies when it comes to food policy, the Food and Drug Administration, might want to weigh in. But apparently, the whole thing is very low on its priority list. Or at least that's the excuse the organization is giving.

Back in March, the Good Food Institute, a group focused on plant-based alternatives to animal products, specifically petitioned the FDA to "provide clarity that such straightforward terms [as 'almondmilk' and 'soymilk'] are acceptable," and to change regulations to "allow the use of qualifying words or phrases before the common or usual name of a food to characterize the main ingredient or component..." according to FoodNavigator-USA. On August 29, the FDA finally responded… to say they didn't yet have a response. "We were not able to reach a decision on your petition within the first 180 days of its receipt, nor as of the date of this letter, because of other agency competing priorities," wrote Douglas Balentine, Director of the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. In fact, it's likely the only reason the Good Food Institute got a response at all is that the FDA is legally required to respond in 180 days.

As a result, Jessica Almy, policy director at the Good Food Institute told FoodNavigator the response was "disappointing" seeing as "interest in this topic seems to be escalating." However, Almy also stated, "More egregious is the fact that FDA has still not responded to the Soyfoods Association's petition, which has been pending since 1997." Yes, the FDA still hasn't made a decision on a similar outstanding petition filed 20 years ago. So, hey, what's another 180 days between friends/government agencies?