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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press The dairy industry says terms like “soy milk” violate the federal standard for milk, but even government agencies clash over the proper term.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017 1:00 am

'Soy milk' terminology has FDA, USDA at odds

CANDICE CHOI | Associated Press

NEW YORK – Dairy farmers want U.S. regulators to banish the term “soy milk,” but documents show even government agencies haven't always agreed on what to call such drinks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture “fervently” wanted to use the term “soy milk” in educational materials for the public, according to emails recently released in response to a lawsuit. That irked the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the rule defining milk as coming from healthy cows.

It's “not a trivial decision,” the FDA warned in one of the 2011 emails about the USDA'sdesire to use the term.

The sour history over who gets to use “milk” reaches back to at least 1997, when a soy foods group petitioned the FDA to recognize the term “soymilk.” A couple of years later, the group pointed out that the FDA itself had used the term. Even now, the National Milk Producers Federation says it's working to build support for legislation directing the FDA to enforce the federal standard. The dairy group says both “soy milk” and “soymilk” are inappropriate ways to describe non-dairy drinks made from soybeans, and that the one-word version is just an attempt to get around the definition.

There are plenty of other food names at issue. A European Union court recently ruled that a company named TofuTown can't describe its products as “cheese.” U.S. rice producers have railed against “pretenders” like diced cauliflower and said they may take the issue to the FDA.

But the FDA hasn't even always been able to get other agencies to go along, as illustrated in the emails obtained by the Good Food Institute, which advocates alternatives to industrial animal agriculture. The GFI sued the FDA for public records relating to soy milk.

The email exchange started when a nutrition adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services alerted the FDA that the USDA planned to use “soy milk” in educational materials about dietary guidelines.

“USDA staff are preparing consumer publications and fervently want to use the term 'soy milk' because beverages are widely marketed this way,” the adviser wrote.

The FDA bristled and provided the federal definition of milk as a “lacteal secretion” from cows. Therefore, the FDA declared that referring to soy, almond and rice drinks as “milk” would be incorrect. It suggested the other agency say “beverage” or “fortified beverage.”

When that didn't put the matter to rest, the FDA warned that the USDA's use of the term could undermine the FDA's regulatory authority.

That apparently didn't stop the USDA, either.

“They are adamant about using the term in consumer publications,” the nutrition adviser wrote. The USDA had indicated that it would use “soy beverage” in official policy documents, but it wanted to use “plain language” in materials for the public.