- The question of whether dairy alternative beverages can be called "milk" has been a controversial one, even for federal government regulators, according to an Associated Press story. Emails obtained by the Good Food Institute, a group that promotes vegan alternatives, showed the Food and Drug Administration did not want to call the soy-based dairy alternative drink "milk" in documentation back in 2011, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture chose to use that phrasing anyway.
- According to the story, the FDA defined milk as a "lacteal secretion" from cows. The agency heard the USDA was planning on using the term "soy milk" in public-facing educational materials. FDA pressed USDA to instead refer to the dairy alternative as a "beverage" or "fortified beverage." It's "not a trivial decision," the FDA warned in a 2011 email about the USDA's desire to use the term.
- USDA wanted to use easily understood "plain language" in its documentation. Despite pushback from the FDA, the 2011 records show the department referred to the popular dairy alternative as "soymilk (soy beverage)," the article states.
It's been a nutritional staple as long as humans have cultivated food, but with the rise of dairy alternatives, "milk" has become an emotionally charged term. Despite alternatives derived from soy, rice and nuts being marketed as "milk" for years, legislative and court battles have waged to try to reserve the term for use by the dairy industry. The emails reported on by the Associated Press show the battles extended — at least at one point — to the people in charge of setting policy.
In Europe, the dairy industry has won this fight — at least for now. Last month, the European Court of Justice ruled plant-based foods cannot be marketed using terms that refer to dairy products, such as "milk," "cheese," "yogurt" and "butter." The case originated when a German association that fights unfair competition sued plant products company TofuTown, which markets dairy alternative products like "tofu butter" and "vegan cheese." The association asked for clarification on the issue. The court decision is not expected to go unchallenged.
Similar lawsuits challenging the use of dairy terminology for plant-based items have been filed in the United States. None of them have moved the needle on the issue. The first legal challenge came in 2013. A California federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against major dairy processors that claimed these companies mislabeled their plant-based dairy products as "milk" even though they do not come from cows.
The judge ruled the FDA regulations pertain only "to what milk is, rather than what it is not, and makes no mention of non-dairy alternatives." Because companies include distinctions like "almond milk" or "coconut milk," like "goat milk," consumers know the difference between these products and conventional milk.
Cases also have been filed separately against makers of Silk and Almond Breeze almond milks earlier this year that claimed the products were falsely advertised as nutritionally equivalent to cow's milk. Both exited the justice system quickly. The Silk lawsuit was directed to the FDA for its ruling, while the Almond Breeze case was dismissed by a judge who ruled reasonable consumers would instantly know a product labeled "almond milk" is not dairy.
Congressional policymakers have also been trying to set the tone on this issue, but have so far been unsuccessful. In December, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to then-FDA Commissioner Robert Califf asking for an investigation into the use of the term "milk" for plant-based alternatives. They cited the official definition of milk — produced from the mammary glands of cows — in addition to the "unique nutritional value" of milk products produced in this manner. Legislators claimed 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 request yielded no change.
This year, members of Congress have introduced the DAIRY PRIDE Act — Defending Against Imitation and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday. This bill would prohibit any plant-based food from using the market name of dairy products. The bill has several cosponsors, but has yet to have a hearing.