In an utterly firm effort to undercut plant-based rivals, big players in the dairy industry are again putting the squeeze on lawmakers to outlaw the use of the term “milk” for non-dairy beverages—or, in Food and Drug Administration lingo, beverages that are not the “lacteal secretion of cows.”
Earlier this year, the dairy industry’s blood curdled when the regulatory agency released a draft guidance stating that plant-based milk alternatives can keep using the term. It was a move that followed years of sour resentment over the labeling.
The FDA did humbly admit that almonds and other sources of plant-based milk don’t, in fact, lactate; therefore, they don’t meet the agency’s own “standard of identity” for products labeled milk. Still, the FDA made a legal argument for keeping the names. It determined that “non-standardized” foods, such as plant-based milks, can legally be marketed with names that are “established common usage,” such as “soy milk” and “almond milk.”
Most importantly, the FDA held focus groups that confirmed that Americans do not generally confuse plant-based milk alternatives with cow’s milk. In fact, many people buy them “because they are not milk.” This is a splash to the face of the dairy industry, which has argued that consumers are tricked into buying popular plant-based milk. The FDA did note, however, that consumers are not good at comparing the nutritional contents of milk alternatives with actual milk.
Sour milk legislation
Following the FDA’s milk ruling, dairy industry groups rounded up support from lawmakers to try to reverse it. Specifically, they got members of the House and Senate to push a bill called the DAIRY PRIDE Act. If signed into law, it would force the FDA to nullify its draft guidance and issue new milk-labeling guidance that would essentially ban any non-dairy beverage from being labeled milk.
“DAIRY PRIDE is needed more than ever,” Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said earlier this year. The FDA’s guidance doesn’t solve “the proven confusion among consumers created when plant-based beverages steal dairy terms to make their products appear healthier than they really are.”
Dairy-state lawmakers are now trying to get the bill signed into law in the coming months as part of the 2023 farm bill reauthorization, according to a report by Stat News.
This legislative effort isn’t exactly fresh, though. Dairy-state lawmakers have pushed similar bills since 2017 with no success, Stat notes. And even if it manages to pass, it would likely meet damning legal challenges. Lawyers noted to the outlet that the government can only limit commercial speech if it has a “compelling interest,” such as preventing consumer deception. But, as the FDA’s focus group already established, soy-milk drinkers aren’t being bamboozled.
Further spoiling the legislative efforts is that the dairy industry isn’t homogenized in its support for the bill. For instance, Stat notes that the International Dairy Foods Association is not lobbying on the bill. Some of the association’s member companies have introduced plant-based milk to their product lines, though a spokesperson suggested to Stat that this didn’t influence its decision not to push for the bill.