Dairy farmers don’t want plant-based “milks” in the grocery store labeled as milk. The dairy milk industry is consolidating, demand is dropping and prices are low. Many nut-flavored beverages are marketed as “milk” and dairy farmers aren’t happy about the added competition. Adam Belz of the Star Tribune reports that as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to adapt the regulations of food labeling, dairy farmers are pushing back against plant-based “milks.”
Increased “Milk” Options
Consumers have ever increasing options for plant-based “milks” these days. It began with soy, then almond milk, coconut milk and rice milk. Now, there’s even oat milk and pea milk. Farmers want these plant-based “milks” to be called something else.
Al Overland, a dairy farmer near Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota has a few ideas.
“They can call it juice or beverage, or whatever they wish, but we just don’t want them to call it milk.”
FDA Updates to Food Labeling
The FDA is deciding whether or not they need to update their rules about how plant-based foods are labeled. Both the dairy industry and the plant-based food industry have been lobbying hard to influence the ultimate decision. The FDA held a four-month comment period and received over 8,624 comments. It’s a hot issue. Right now, the FDA’s current definition of milk is somewhat archaic, leaving out the lacteal secretions of other animals, like goats, for example.
According to the federal “standards of identity” regulations, milk is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”
A spokeswoman from the FDA said the agency has not set a date for a decision on labeling rules, but they’re taking many of the comments into consideration.
Lucas Sjostrom, the executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, would like to see the current FDA rules enforced. Sjostrom also says that he’s okay with other animals’ lacteal secretions being labeled as milk too.
“We have no problem with goats,” Sjostrom said.
Dairy farmers often argue that plant-based products that are made to resemble diary foods have no standards of identity, and that plant-based drinks are not nutritionally equivalent to milk. Yet, by marketing these plant-based products as milk they unfairly reap the benefit of decades of milk promotion by farmers. Overland said,
“Dairy farmers have spent a lot of money over the years promoting milk, and promoting it as the nutritional product that it is, and they are taking advantage of all of this investment.”
Right now, many dairy operations are struggling. As of last July, sales of traditional milk products dropped 4% in the last year. Sales of milk alternatives rose by 8% in that same time period.
Elaine Watson of Food Navigator-USA wrote recently about the Plant Based Foods Association’s (PBFA) appeal to the FDA in regards to labeling. They say that enabling new standards for plant-based “milks,”
“Would create unnecessary, confusing, and costly label changes that likely violate the First Amendment and would be struck down in court.”
Doug Radi, the CEO of Good Karma and a PBFA board member says that the entire debate is,
“A solution in search of a problem.”
He says companies offering dairy alternatives already utilize clear labeling and use important qualifiers to describe their products, like non-dairy, dairy free or alternative. Compound word qualifiers like “flaxmilk” are appropriate, according to Radi.
“Consumers think these words represent proper descriptors for the products and do not believe we are trying to pass off our products as dairy product. In fact, we would not be successful doing so, as consumers buying our products are looking for alternatives to dairy.”
“Milk is a liquid beverage that you put in cereal, smoothies, a glass, recipes and coffee. It’s not necessarily something that comes from cows. If anything, you should modernize the standard of identity to reflect the current market and NOT go back to the 1950’s.”
“Let’s NOT Go Back to the 1950’s”
Nobody really wants to go back to the 1950’s. Radi is correct in the fact that we should have food labels that are accurate and reflect our times. The truth is, plant-based “milks” have fairly few restrictions as far as labeling goes. That should be updated.
Often times plant-based “milks” are not the nutritional equivalent to cow’s milk- and many consumers don’t know that. For example, some brands of almond milk have four times more nuts than other brands. The Animal Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association recommended,
“To help consumers determine the ratio of plant-sourced ingredients to water and other ingredients in plant-based milk products, the FDA should implement labeling requirements similar to existing juice label requirements, which require juice products to disclose the proportion of fruit or vegetable juice to other ingredients.”
Could a New Policy Be in the Works?
Up to this point, the FDA hasn’t done much to assist dairy farmers with labeling updates. However, FDA commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb has indicated that “A new compliance policy,” may be in the works.
Don’t miss Ag Nook’s related article titled, “The State of Dairy“.