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A Look At Plant Milk Labelling Restrictions in The U.S and The U.K

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There has been a huge increase in plant-based milk sales in recent years, making it the most successful of all plant-based categories. Sales have grown dramatically in the past decade and continue to grow. Global revenue for plant-based milk totaled US$ 11 billion in 2020. Demand is set to grow by 11% between 2021 and 2031, with more consumers choosing it for health, taste or ethical reasons. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI) plant-based milk took a 15% share of the total milk market in 2021 – up from 12% in 2018. 

As the sector grows governments are reassessing how plant-based milk should be labelled, with each territory taking a different stance. The US and UK are both reviewing their rules but are taking very different approaches and appear to be travelling in different directions. Whilst in the US it looks like things are getting easier for plant-based milk producers, in the UK the regulations look set to become more restrictive.  

In February 2023 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published its draft guidance on the labelling of plant-based milk. The document says that alternative dairy products can use the word “milk” on packaging and recommends a voluntary change to labelling. The FDA recommends the voluntary label should state the nutritional difference between plant-based milk and cows’ milk. The guidance only applies to plant-based milk, not other plant-based products. 

This comes after years of discussion between the FDA, businesses and Congress on using dairy names for plant-based foods. A 2018 FDA request for comments got 13,000 responses.  

The FDA reviewed consumer studies and conducted focus groups, revealing that consumers understand that plant-based milk does not contain cows’ milk and that the word milk is commonly used to describe plant-based milk. For example, one study found around 75% of respondents understood that plant-based milk does not contain milk and less than 10% believed plant-based milk contained dairy milk. 

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The FDA said: “the fact that a standard of identity has been established for a food (under its common or usual name) or that a name is specified among the standard of identity regulations for a food does not preclude use of the name in the common or usual name of another food.” 

The FDA’s recommends qualifying the word milk with the specific plant source, such as soy milk, or walnut and cashew milk if there are two sources. It recommends a voluntary nutrition statement that describes how the product is nutritionally different to cows’ milk, such as “Contains lower/higher amounts of [nutrient name(s)] than milk.” 

The draft is open for further comments until April 24 2023, and the final guidance is expected to be published in the summer of 2023.  

Meanwhile, in the UK, the government looks likely to apply further restrictions on labelling non-dairy milk.  

Currently, plant-based milk cannot use dairy names such as milk due to an EU law dating back to 1987. Since Brexit, the UK government could relax this. However, the Food Standards and Information Focus Group (FSIFG) is calling for further labelling restrictions to be tightened. They have proposed additional restrictions to ban misspellings like Mylk or M*lk, and phrases like milk-alternative.  

The move has been strongly criticised by a group of 44 plant-based businesses and organizations, including Alpro, Oatly, Quorn, Pro Veg, Plant-Based Food Alliance, and the Good Food Institute, who have written to the government pointing out that the ban will impact the government’s environmental and food strategies.   

The FSIFG believes consumers could be confused and misled by dairy-like terms used on plant-based milk. However, a new study from plant-based food producer Upfield found that most consumers could distinguish between dairy and plant-based alternatives. For example, 91% could tell that Flora Plant B+tter Salted was plant-based.  

Dominic Brisby, Regional President, Europe, for Upfield said: “Do British officials really think Brits are incapable of understanding the terms that people across the pond clearly don’t struggle with? There is absolutely no problem with consumers being confused. Consumers know exactly what products they are picking off supermarket shelves.”


Alice Grahame
Alice Grahame is a freelance writer based in London. She’s worked for the BBC, Guardian and various NGOs. She enjoys walking, allotment gardening and trying new plant-based dishes.