For decades, Americans have managed to accept the existence of "soy milk" without melting down into existential confusion over the meaning of dairy. And yet—never content to leave to common sense what could be legislated—some federal lawmakers seek to clamp down on the use of the term milk to refer to non-dairy beverages.
Introduced by a Democrat from the great dairy state of Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin's "Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday (DAIRY PRIDE) Act" would prevent almond milk, coconut milk, cashew milk, and all other lactose-lacking products—along with goat's milk, sheep's milk, and all milk from animals other than cows—from being labeled with terms like milk, yogurt, and cheese.
"Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy's good name for their own benefit," said Baldwin in a press release. "The DAIRY PRIDE Act would require the FDA to issue guidance for nationwide enforcement of mislabeled imitation dairy products within 90 days and require the FDA to report to Congress two years after enactment to hold the agency accountable for this update in their enforcement obligations."
The statement also quotes Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery's Jerry Croes, who said it's "about time someone stands up for the American Dairy farmer. … It's not fair that the name milk should be used by non-dairy drinks to further erode what little profit we have."
But plenty of information on non-dairy milk labels indicates that they are not actually dairy—in fact, that's generally the selling point. If dairy milk sales are down, it's not because U.S. consumers are, en masse, too stupid to realize that soy milk and such aren't animal products, but because the past decade has seen a proliferation of plant-based alternatives to traditional cow's milk come on to the market, and consumers are—for a host of reasons, including lactose intolerance, nutritional benefits, animal-welfare concerns, and taste preferences—flocking to them.
— Sen. Tammy Baldwin (@SenatorBaldwin) January 12, 2017
As Baylen Linnekin noted here recently, "Americans are drinking many types of milk they've long consumed—cow, goat, camel, etc.—and newer types as well, including almond, coconut, hemp, rice, and soy," making "rules that reserve use of the term 'milk' for dairy-cow milk alone" more misleading from a consumer perspective. "Perhaps rules should be established that force dairy-cow makers to modify their use of the term 'milk' with the word 'cow,' in a way that would be consistent with every other use of the term ('goat milk,' 'almond milk,' etc.)," Linnekin suggested.
Linnekin's melting-pot-of-milks column came in response to another recent move by federal lawmakers to limit the term milk to stuff that comes from cows. In December, more than 30 members of Congress petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which defines milk as "the lacteal secretion .?.?. obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows," to enforce this definition by going after non-dairy "milk" beverages.
But without any evidence that consumers are harmed by non-dairy beverages being described as milk, the whole thing smacks of simple dairy-industry protectionism. In the end, forcing producers of cow-milk alternatives to ditch the term milk won't increase consumer clarity or safety but simply bring unnecessary costs to these companies (and all American taxpayers) while further muddying the milk marketplace.