Almond milk. Rice milk. Soy milk.
The proliferation of plant-based “milk” products has been increasing in recent years as more and more consumers choose them. At the same time, the consumption of actual milk is in decline. The paradox has been catching notice and reignited an old fight over the sale of non-milk products as milk.
Believe it or not, “milk” has an actual definition according to the federal government. The Food and Drug Administration defines milk as: Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.
Just before Christmas, 32 Congressmen wrote a letter to the FDA’s Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D. asking him to enforce that definition. In the letter, the Congressmen explain the difficulties facing the dairy industry today, particularly that milk prices have dropped by 40% since 2014. The letter asks that the FDA support dairy farm families by putting an end to the illegal and misleading use of the word “milk” on plant-based products that do not contain any milk.
Most recently in the new year, Senator Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) proposed the “DAIRY PRIDE Act” The act asks the FDA to enforce its definition of the word “milk” and prohibit plant-based products from using the word on its products. The proposed Act points out that the consumption of milk is recommended by the federal government, and provides nutritional qualities not found in plant-based products. The Act gives the FDA 90 days after passage to begin enforcement.
One persistent argument made by those opposed to changing the name of non-milk products is that consumers aren’t actually confused by the labels – no one buys almond milk and thinks it contains cow’s milk. Well, duh. The problem isn’t that people think these products contain cow’s milk, but that they consider these products as some type of milk. It isn’t milk. Coconut water is not milk, no matter which way you look at it.
As the daughter of soybean farmers, one might think that I am sympathetic to the arguments for the plant-based “milk” products. But, quite the contrary, I do see labeling these products as milk misleading. The use of the word is just plain incorrect. These products obviously claim the word because milk is a popular product and one that consumers purchase on a regular basis (what goes with cereal? milk! chocolate cake? milk! what do you put in your coffee? milk!). But its use is like selling grapefruit juice as orange juice because the latter is more favored by the consuming public.
It is also against current federal regulations. If the FDA is going to have a definition for the word “milk,” then it needs to enforce it. Otherwise, consistent disregard for the marketing rules and regulations causes the public to lose confidence in their integrity.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure removal of the word will actually be effective now. Almond milk is just considered a real thing, even f you cannot milk an almond. People have accepted these plant-based products as a form of milk, and changing the name might not change the perception. Perhaps over time it would work, but for now we’re probably stuck with the idea.
Nonetheless, I would support the FDA enforcing its own definition of milk, and asking producers of plant-based products to remove it from their labeling. No, this action would not save dairy farm families. It certainly isn’t the most pressing issue facing agriculture. But, because it is misleading, I commend the actions of those trying to make the change.