Is 'milk' the food industry's new four-letter word?

Dive Brief:

  • Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and two dozen bipartisan congressional lawmakers have signed a letter sent to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf requesting the agency take action to investigate the use of the term "milk" by plant-based dairy brands.
  • Of primary concern to these lawmakers and members of the conventional dairy industry is the "mislabeling of imitation 'milk' products," which are surging in sales and popularity as milk prices continue to tumble, harming the livelihoods of conventional dairy farmers and processors, according to the letter.
  • Legislators cite the official definition of milk, including how it is produced from the mammary glands of cows, in addition to the "unique nutritional value" of milk products produced in this manner. Legislators claim that plant-based dairy products "are unable to match the nutritional makeup of the product they mimic, yet they continue to be marketed as milk," the letter read. 

Dive Insight:

Conventional dairy producers could have one critical issue with this argument  not all products generally accepted as "milk" come from cows either, such as goat or sheep's milk. When manufacturers extract liquid from nuts or other plants, like soy or rice, producers, retailers and consumers alike have long referred to those substances as milk too. 

Another hurdle for this initiative is that previous attempts have failed. In late 2013, a California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against major dairy processors like Dean Foods and WhiteWave that claimed these companies mislabeled their plant-based dairy products as "milk," though they do not come from cows.

The judge disagreed, saying the FDA regulations pertain only "to what milk is, rather than what it is not, and makes no mention of non-dairy alternatives." In other words, the same logic that allows goat and sheep's milk to be labeled as milk could also apply to plant-based milks: Because companies include distinctions like "almond milk" or "coconut milk," like "goat milk," consumers can readily discern the difference between these products and conventional milk.

However, the issue isn't going anywhere. Experts predict that dairy farmers and processors will continue to struggle in the face of plunging milk prices and soaring sales for plant-based dairy, especially as more major dairy product manufacturers — such as Danone and General Mills — hop aboard. That struggle will continue to prompt pressure from lawmakers  — particularly those representing major dairy-producing states — to make changes to official labeling definitions.

Filed Under: Packaging / Labeling Policy Marketing Beverages