Got Almond Milk? Dairy Farms Protest Milk Label on Nondairy Drinks

If milk comes from a plant, can you still call it milk?

Not according to the dairy industry. Facing growing competition from dairy alternatives like almond, soy and coconut milk, the nation’s dairy farmers are fighting back, with an assist from Congress. Their goal: to stop companies from calling their plant-based products yogurt, milk or cheese. Dairy farmers say the practice misleads consumers into thinking that nondairy milk is nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.

A bipartisan group of 32 members of Congress is asking the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on companies that call plant-based beverages “milk.” They say F.D.A. regulations define milk as a “lacteal secretion” obtained by milking “one or more healthy cows.” Proposed legislation from Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, and Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, a state known for its cheese, suggests a slightly broader definition. Their bill would require the F.D.A. to target milk, yogurt and cheese products that do not contain milk from “hooved mammals.”

“The bottom line for us is that milk is defined by the F.D.A., and we’re saying to the F.D.A.: Enforce your definition,” Mr. Welch said.

But critics say consumers know exactly what they are buying when they choose almond or soy milk instead of dairy milk. “There’s no cow on any of these containers of almond milk or soy milk,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group representing 70 companies. “No one is trying to fool consumers. All they’re trying to do is create a better alternative for people who are looking for that option.”

And what about other nondairy products with dairy names? Will milk of magnesia, cocoa butter, cream of wheat and peanut butter have to change their names as well?

In recent years, dairy milk alternatives made from almonds, soy, cashews and coconuts have exploded in popularity. Many people consider them more nutritious than cow’s milk. Some people buy them because they have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. Others choose them for environmental reasons or because they want a vegan diet. And some just like the taste.

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Photo

Miyoko Schinner, chief executive and founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen makes nut-based cheeses and butters in Fairfax, Calif. CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

Cow’s milk was once one of America’s most iconic beverages. But Americans are drinking less of it. Americans drink 37 percent less milk today than they did in 1970, according to the Department of Agriculture. Dairy milk sales tumbled to $12 billion last year, down 20 percent from $15 billion in 2011. Part of the reason is that people switched to other beverages, such as soft drinks, fruit juices, bottled water and soy and almond milk. Mintel, a market research firm, found that negative health perceptions were driving the decline in sales of cow’s milk.

Plant-based milks, with brand names like Almond Breeze and Silk, are sold in the dairy aisle and still represent a fraction of the beverage market, but they are growing in popularity. According to Nielsen, sales of plant-based milks have surged to $1.4 billion from $900 million in 2012.

Much of the growth in plant-based milk has come from the rising popularity of almond milk. Last year, Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, announced that it would begin offering almond milk to lighten its espresso drinks, to meet customer demand. The chain said it was one of the most-requested customer suggestions of all time.

Experts say sales of almond milk are surging for a number of reasons. The dairy industry has come under fire over concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock, which contributes to air and water pollution. Almond production has an environmental impact as well: Most of the world’s almonds come from drought-stricken California, where farmers have been accused of diverting dwindling groundwater reserves to their almond orchards, and producing just 16 almonds requires an estimated 15.3 gallons of water. But ultimately the environmental impact of producing cow’s milk in areas where almonds are grown would be far worse, said David Zetland, an assistant professor of economics at Leiden University College in the Netherlands and the author of “Living With Water Scarcity.”

Many consumers also consider almond milk a healthier alternative to cow’s milk. The dairy industry says that’s not true. They point out that milk has nine essential nutrients that are necessary for good health, like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and potassium. The industry has also created ads claiming that milk has up to eight times as much protein as almond milk and fewer ingredients and additives. Some brands of soy and almond milk do contain large amounts of added sugar. But they also come in unsweetened varieties with zero sugar, and some are fortified with calcium, B12 and other nutrients.

There is also debate over the nutritional merits of cow’s milk. In 2013, for example, two of the country’s top nutrition experts, Walter Willett and David Ludwig, both at Harvard, published an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics arguing that healthy adults who get plenty of vegetables, nuts and protein in their diets may not get any extra benefit from cow’s milk. They also raised concerns about exposure to hormones in milk and high levels of added sugar in the chocolate milk served in many schools.

As the dairy industry continues to press its case, producers of nondairy milks are fighting back. The Plant Based Foods Association sent letters to the F.D.A. stating that plant-based milks were properly labeled with their “common or usual” names. A petition from the Good Food Institute opposing the dairy labeling legislation has garnered more than 41,000 signatures.

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Janet Clark, with a calf at her family’s dairy farm, Vision Aire Farms in Wisconsin, was one of the farmers who asked Senator Tammy Baldwin to restrict the use of the word milk outside the dairy industry.CreditBen Brewer for The New York Times

“Don’t they have better things to do than to care about what a product is called?” asked Miyoko Schinner, the chief executive of Miyoko’s Kitchen, which sells popular nut-based cheeses and butters at almost 2,000 stores nationwide. “The only reason they would care is because they’re protecting their special interests.”

Marsha Cohen, an expert on food and drug law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said that the dairy industry faces an uphill battle. She said the government’s definitions for milk and other foods — known as “standards of identity” — are intended primarily to protect consumers from financial harm, such as being duped into buying cheap or imitation foods masquerading as more expensive ones. She noted that the F.D.A. recently allowed the company Hampton Creek to call its vegan mayonnaise substitute “Just Mayo,” even though the F.D.A.’s legal definition of mayonnaise states that the condiment must contain eggs.

The debate over what can and can’t be called milk already has played out in courts, with judges so far siding with the plant-based milk industry. In 2013, Judge Samuel Conti of Federal District Court in San Francisco, dismissed a proposed class-action lawsuit that claimed that almond, coconut and soy milk were mislabeled because they do not come from cows. Judge Conti said the claim “stretches the bounds of credulity,” and that it was “simply implausible that a reasonable consumer would mistake a product like soy milk or almond milk with dairy milk from a cow.” He said the lawsuit was reminiscent of an earlier case in which a woman claimed she was misled by Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries cereal because she thought it contained real fruit (that case was thrown out).

More: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/well/eat/got-almond-milk-dairy-farms-protest-milk-label-on-nondairy-drinks.html?_r=0

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12 thoughts on “Got Almond Milk? Dairy Farms Protest Milk Label on Nondairy Drinks

  1. “Ms. Clark said that she and her family have struggled as milk prices have slumped and the costs of operating their farm have risen. “ Then Ms. Clark should get out of the business of enslaving cows, torturing and killing them and their calves! Stupid parasite! Does she really think those who know what goes on in dairy farm would care about her whining?

  2. Merriam-Webster defines milk as:

    “a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow’s milk ”

    I’ve heard the term coconut milk used for ages. It’s the color and texture, and I don’t think a name change is going to change consumer buying habits. Unfortunately, there’s a trend in modern times to change a definition to suit us, if it is repeated long enough, it does become accepted. But what a waste of time for a politician to be involved with, and a Democrat to boot! Of course, this is the same person who co-sponsored a bill to delist and hunt wolves again in Wisconsin, and I wonder if she has any biology, agriculture, and hunting/trapping/hounding knowledge whatsoever, and is just pandering to a small but vocal group of voters!

  3. I cannot feel sorry for an industry that exploits animals. That poor calf in the photo wants his/her momma! And where is she? Hooked up to a milking machine so some stupid human can have her milk! Disgusting.

    • I guess the a-hole woman in the photo thinks that if she takes her picture looking at them (with a sad look?) then that makes up for everything they do these innocent animals. I cannot think of any animal as highly dangerous and parasitic as the likes of this woman!

  4. Yes, these “farmers” should stop exploiting their animals. While driving on an expressway, I saw a poor baby calf just standing dazed by his igloo. A very sad sight to see knowing that his momma was taken away. I do not support this awful industry. Cashew nut milk is very good and Silk labels them non-GMO and does not have side effects. Unfortunately, Blue Diamond probably uses GMO almonds which can cause allergies and so does soy milk most of which GMO. Round Up residues can cause awful side effects.

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