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Say ‘cheese’: Dairy labeling debate hits Petaluma

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What’s in a name? For food makers, potentially billions of dollars.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently taking steps toward modernizing its framework for labeling dairy products, and Petaluma – home to a multi-million-dollar food industry – has found itself torn between both sides of an ongoing debate.

In September, the FDA submitted a national request for comments, hoping to get insight on how consumers use plant-based alternatives and how well they understand terms like ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ when it’s used to label them despite a soybean or nut derivative, for example.

The Petaluma City Council last week stepped into the discussion on behalf of a local plant-based producer, writing a letter to the FDA advocating for standards that would allow traditional dairy names to continue being modified with words like “almond” or “vegan.”

Although, the decision to speak up received pushback from multiple councilmembers that felt uneasy about taking a public stance. In an unusual turn for council letters, a vote was taken, resulting in a 5-2 verdict to proceed with councilmembers Kathy Miller and Chris Albertson dissenting.

“I just think, given that we have all different types of food industries in town, I don’t think we should be perceived as favoring one over the other,” Miller said. “That was my concern.”

According to a 2014 study, Petaluma’s growing food manufacturing industry provides a regional economic impact of $1.3 billion each year.

City officials said the decision to write the letter, which was done on behalf of Miyoko’s Kitchen, a vegan cheese producer that moved to Petaluma last year, was to voice support so the company could avoid losses related to new packaging and marketing to explain the new labels – efforts they believe could hinder future success.

“A big piece of our economic development program here has been to try to diversify the economy and capitalize on our food production industry,” outgoing City Manager John Brown said at the Nov. 19 meeting. “I think we’ve been pretty successful at that. That’s included supporting some of the more traditional members of the food production industry – some of the dairies and creameries – but also some that are up and upcoming. … Miyoko’s is a pretty significant addition to the economic family here, and this is of concern to them.”

In January 2017, the so-called “Dairy Pride Act” was introduced to the U.S. Senate, aiming to standardize the legal definition of products like milk, cheese and yogurt. Even though it never passed, it called for greater enforcement of the FDA’s “standards of identity,” which would curb the use of traditional dairy terms by plant-based manufacturers.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, at least 17 organizations have registered to lobby on both sides of the bill since it was first introduced, making it one of the most contentious issues currently facing the food industry.

Miyoko Schinner, founder and CEO of Miyoko’s Kitchen, believes the effort to standardize definitions is an attempt by the dairy industry to stifle the growth of plant-based producers that have been rapidly gaining a market share over the last few years.

Research shows the market for milk-alternative beverages is expected to reach $10.9 billion by 2019, reflecting a compound annual growth rate of over 13 percent.

Schinner described this moment as a “major transition point” for the food industry as consumers continue clamoring for sustainable alternatives that could meet the demand of a global population that’s expected to reach 10 billion by 2050.

“There’s a revolution going on right now underneath our noses,” she said. “It’s unavoidable whether you like it or not. It’s a revolution that’s creating changes that will help save the planet.”

Miyoko’s Kitchen, which is currently housed in a state-of-the-art, 30,000 square foot facility on Marina Avenue, offers vegan cheese and butter products derived from cashews. The company continues to innovate, with potato-based options arriving next year.

In 2014, when Schinner first opened their previous production facility in Fairfax, cheeses from Miyoko’s Kitchen were labeled differently, she said. In fact, changing the terminology was done in response to the descriptions that came from customers.

“We named our product cultured nut product,” Schinner said. “There was no reference to cheese at all. What did consumers call it? They called it vegan cheese.”

Representatives from several local dairy manufacturers were contacted for this story, but none responded to interview requests.

The National Milk Producers Federation, which represents 27 cooperatives responsible for more than half of milk production nationwide, has been at the forefront of the debate for 40 years, appealing to the FDA to revisit its regulations and enforcement practices to help eliminate consumer misconceptions in the dairy aisle.

NMPF spokesperson Alan Bjerga said the organization wants to ensure a fair marketplace that avoids potentially deceptive practices and helps shoppers make informed, health-oriented decisions.

“What you’re seeing is a proliferation of products that are essentially using dairy names to get the positive associations you get with dairy, but they’re not dairy,” Bjerga said. “We have hard-working farmers that want to limit the spread of that practice, and sell products with the best interests of consumers in-mind.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement that implementing “clear and transparent food labels” is an issue he’s prioritized in the agency’s newly-adopted “Nutrition Innovation Strategy.”

Federal officials have expressed concerns that consumers are purchasing plant-based alternatives with the expectation that they’ll be consuming key nutrients at levels comparable to animal-based products. It’s a risk that weighs even heavier on parents that substitute plant-based beverages for milk, for example, hindering the nutritional intake of children that usually have a less diverse diet.

Gottlieb said the FDA will not be reviewing the standards in a vacuum, and is committed to an active public process that will likely have impacts well beyond dairy.

“We recognize that, as a regulatory agency, it’s not appropriate to unilaterally change our regulatory approach if we have a history of non-enforcement,” Gottlieb said. “We also need to closely consider the potential First Amendment issues related to the different uses of these terms.”

The administration recently extended the public comment period to Jan. 25, a move Schinner believes is due to the uneven response in favor of plant-based manufacturers.

If the FDA rules against alternative producers, Miyoko’s Kitchen could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. If products are pulled off of shelves, based on the company’s growing demand, the losses could rise into the millions, Schinner said.

Traditional Sonoma County farmers have taken great strides over the last few decades to increase sustainable practices and comply with state regulations that often establish new norms around the country.

It’s an effort Schinner celebrates, and one she hopes might lead to more diversified product lines as future-minded dairies start exploring opportunities to capitalize on the plant-based trend.

“I definitely commend people for that,” she said. “But just like we can improve our practices, there’s room for all industries to think, ‘How can we ensure we can have a planet for our grandchildren and great grandchildren?’ It’s pretty serious what’s happening, and we need to take an open look.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)