A bill introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) last month, the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (DAIRY PRIDE Act), aims to suppress the use of the word “milk” on nondairy plant-based beverages such as almond, soy, and coconut milk. And it's stirring up quite the controversy.
The DAIRY PRIDE Act is looking to reinvigorate U.S. milk consumption by restricting use of the word “milk,” to just mammalian secretions, which would certainly inconvenience the booming $2 billion nondairy milk market. But it wouldn’t put it out of business, according to Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant-Based Foods Association, the trade group for the plant-based alternatives industry.
Dairy sales are hurting. In 2015, milk sales decreased seven percent, and they’re expected to drop another 11 percent by 2020. Those numbers reflect an even greater overall decline in dairy consumption over the past four decades. While Americans consumed nearly 22 gallons of milk per year per person in 1970, that number dropped to just 14.5 gallons in 2012.
Numerous factors have contributed to the declining interest in dairy, and it’s not just the rise in nondairy milk options.
“There’s no evidence to show a connection between the rise of plant-based milks and dairy milk’s decline,” Simon says.
Over the last half-century, eating habits have shifted. Convenience foods became the norm in the 1970s and ‘80s as milk sales began to wane. People began eating out more often and began to increase consumption of other dairy products, namely yogurt and cheese—versatile and convenient alternatives to fluid milk.
Simon notes that the proposed legislation isn’t going to dissuade consumer interest in plant-based milks, no matter what they’re being called.
“Why would a consumer say ‘it’s no longer being called almond milk so I’m going to go back to drinking dairy’?”
The illogical conclusion, though, is what DAIRY PRIDE seems to be banking on. Simon says it’s a long shot, and there are already precedents set for allowing the use of the word “milk” on nondairy products.
One such precedent occurred in 2015, when a California judge ruled in favor of Trader Joe’s after the grocery chain was sued over the use of the word “milk” on its nondairy soymilk product.
“No reasonable consumer” would confuse soy with dairy, cited U.S. district judge Vince Chhabria. The federal standard identity for milk “does not categorically preclude a company from giving any food product a name that includes the word milk,” Judge Chhabria said in his decision.
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That federal standard is currently defined as the "lacteal secretions from cows," which could also prevent alternative mammal milks, like goat and sheep, buffalo, or camel milk from being labeled as milk as well.
If the DAIRY PRIDE agenda sounds familiar, you may recall similar federal standard waiving done by Unilever in 2014, the parent company to best-selling mayonnaise brand, Hellmann’s (Best Foods in the western U.S.). It filed a lawsuit, which it eventually dropped, against Hampton Creek Foods over its popular eggless mayonnaise. Unilever insisted that the product, called Just Mayo, violated the FDA definition of mayonnaise because it didn’t include eggs (it uses pea protein instead) and therefore couldn't use the word "mayo" on its product. Not only did Unilever eventually drop the lawsuit, and the FDA reverse course after sending warning letters to Hampton Creek, but Unilever eventually launched its own version of eggless mayonnaise.
“If ‘milk’ was the only world on a container of almond milk, that could be a problem,” says Simon. “But they’re not doing that. No company is doing that. The dairy industry wants to take it out of context.”
The rise in nondairy plant milks over the last decade, is giving consumers far more options than traditional whole, low-fat, 2%, or skim milk, and Simon says taste has become one of the biggest drivers in the nondairy category's explosive growth.
"There are so many options to choose from," she notes. While almond, coconut, and soy are among the most popular, there are nondairy milks made from hemp seeds, flax seeds, oats, rice, macadamia nuts, pecans, and cashews. There’s even a milk made from the same yellow pea protein that egged on the lawsuit over the definition of mayonnaise. And they're all piquing consumer interest.
Plant-based milks also offer different nutrition profiles than dairy. Mintel notes nondairy milk drinkers consume the products for heart health (29 percent of nondairy drinkers vs. 20 percent of dairy drinkers), and 23 percent of nondairy milk drinkers say weight loss is a key factor compared to just eight percent of dairy drinkers.
"What’s more," Mintel notes, "seven in 10 (69 percent) consumers agree that non-dairy milk is healthy for kids compared to 62 percent who agree that dairy milk is healthy for kids."
The Good Food Institute, a plant-based advocacy organization, has launched a Change.org petition, “Tell Congress to Dump the “DAIRY PRIDE Act.” The petition notes, “No one is purchasing plant-based milk, cheese, or yogurt because they’ve been tricked into thinking it’s a cow’s ‘lacteal secretions.’”
Simon is confident the FDA will support the plant-based milk industry’s use of the word "milk" to accurately describe these beverages.
“There are many solutions to this problem,” she says. “We just don’t accept the dairy industry’s solution.”
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