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Yogurt rule holds promise for milk-labeling reform

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A new FDA rule that defines what is and isn’t yogurt has much broader, and potentially very positive, implications in one of the most contested consumer issues of the day — the proper labeling of milk and dairy products.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a final rule taking effect today that amends yogurt’s standard of identity — the legal definition of what a food is — by modernizing rules to fit changes in yogurt-making technology. It also revokes the previous individual standards of identity for low-fat yogurt and nonfat yogurt. Industry compliance is expected by Jan. 1, 2024.

As the National Milk Producers Federation points out, the new rule is rooted in a response to a citizen’s petition from the National Yogurt Association filed in February 2000. The slow pace isn’t unusual, unfortunately, and undoubtedly there will be quibbles with some details of the 22-page document. But FDA’s decision is important: It defends principles that support transparent food labeling and protects consumers. And those principles matter well beyond yogurt, with the FDA promising a review of a much larger issue — the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives — by next June.

The rule offers a robust defense of standards of identity, which ensure that consumers purchase products that meet their expectations. As FDA writes, “Any food that purports to be or is represented as yogurt, must conform to the definition standard of identity for yogurt.” So, what’s in yogurt? “Cream, milk, partially skimmed milk, skim milk, and the reconstituted versions of these ingredients may be used alone or in combination as the basic dairy ingredients in yogurt manufacture,” the rule states. And how is yogurt made? “Yogurt is produced by culturing the basic dairy ingredients and any optional dairy ingredients with a characterizing lactic acid-producing bacterial culture.”

In other words: How a food is made, and where it comes from, matters.

The rule also reaffirms the role of nutrition quality in meeting consumer expectations. Discussion of the “nutritional or functional purposes” of ingredients permeates the document, and while the rule allows some flexibility on the need to fortify with Vitamin A in lower-fat yogurts, it restates the basic, crucial role that nutritional value plays in a product’s definition, as evidenced by FDA’s emphasis on the preservation of protein content and nutritional quality in the product’s formulation.

In other words: Whether a food has the nutritional value expected of that food, matters.

So, what could a rule about yogurt mean for the decades-old debate over plant-based imposters? The FDA doesn’t address that issue directly. But it’s clear that non-dairy products that call themselves yogurt don’t fit the identity standard, and a look at nutrition labels shows nothing resembling equivalence between real dairy yogurt and plant-based products.

If standards of identity matter as much as FDA says it does, then the phrase “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more health cows” is critical — because that’s the standard of identity for milk, which FDA is pledged to enforce. And if nutritional integrity is as important to a food’s definition as the yogurt rule says it is, then beverages that are wildly deficient in protein and other nutrients compared to milk, shouldn’t call themselves “milk.”

The FDA has shown its hand in a rule that will help consumers make informed decisions. Extending the logic and consistency of the new yogurt standard to labeling of products using terms like milk, cheese, and butter — and then enforcing them — is long overdue.

The yogurt rule shows that reason can still win out, with standards of identity and nutritional value protected. 

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