When I woke up this morning I didn’t think I’d be writing this sentence. The dairy industry thinks your average grocery shopper doesn’t have enough brain cells to differentiate between cow’s milk and other types of milk on package labels.

Here’s a little quiz:

  • Yes or no – soy milk comes from cows.
  • Yes or no – almond milk comes from cows.
  • Yes or no – coconut milk comes from cows.
  • Yes or no – oat milk comes from cows.
  • Yes or no – rice milk comes from cows.
  • Yes or no – milk comes from cows.

Nothing tricky here. Obviously, only milk comes from cows … full stop.

And, remarkably, that’s also the opinion of the Food and Drug Administration in a newly issued proposed draft guidance recommending that plant-based milk alternatives may continue to use the word “milk” in their names because “consumers generally understand that (plant-based milk alternatives) do not contain milk and choose to purchase PBMA because they are not milk” (doesn’t FDA have better things to do with its time?):

“Focus groups commissioned and conducted by FDA suggested that ‘milk’ is strongly rooted in consumers’ vocabulary when describing and talking about plant-based milk alternatives. The focus groups indicated that most participants were not confused about plant-based milk alternatives containing milk and refer to plant-based milk alternatives as ‘milk.’”

Big Dairy has raged against this kind of thinking for years, arguing the use of the word “milk” should only define that which comes from their beloved cows, claiming consumers aren’t getting the whole story when it comes to nutritional differences with plant-based alternatives. Big Dairy believes consumers are being duped into thinking plant-based milk alternatives are just as nutritious as cow’s milk by virtue of using the word “milk” on their labels.

And Big Dairy wants the government to do something about it. Well, the milk industry is getting what it wished for. Sort of. Kind of.

That’s because, if enacted as written, the proposed FDA guideline could give plant-based milk alternatives the opportunity to strut their stuff by comparing their products directly with cow’s milk:

“FDA recommends that plant-based milk alternatives that use the term ‘milk’ in their name (e.g., ‘soy milk,’ ‘almond milk,’ ‘oat milk,’ ‘almond-macadamia milk blend,’ etc.) and have a nutrient composition that is different than milk (e.g., calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin, or vitamin B12 (see Appendix 1)) bear an additional nutrient statement on the product label describing how it is nutritionally different. The use of these statements is voluntary.”

Big Dairy is counting on these new disclosure labels to show consumers that plant-based milk alternatives are nutritionally inferior to milk. And the National Milk Producers Association thinks that the plant-based milk alternative industry will somehow cave in should the FDA guidelines become finalized:

“If this guidance is taken seriously, the most misleading labels should start to disappear as packaging gets updated and store shelves get restocked. Many mislabeled ‘milks’ that are really drinks or beverages should start being labeled as drinks or beverages. For those that stubbornly insist on misleading consumers, disclosures should appear — real ones with clear statements, not wiggle words in tiny print that say differences exist without stating what those differences are. The guidance is voluntary, and it’s only a draft, but FDA has put the industry on notice. The next move’s on them.”

Well, Big Dairy, the next move is probably hysterical giggles. Plant-based milk alternatives are not going quietly into the night over FDA voluntary guidelines. Plant-based milk alternatives are a huge business. Dairy Foods magazine puts U.S. sales at $3.1 billion annually and world sales at a staggering $20.9 billion.

In its heart-of-hearts, Big Dairy must know the proposed FDA guideline is just so much window dressing. After all, it’s been lobbying Congress since at least 2017 to pass the Dairy Pride Act. The measure was reintroduced last month in the House. The bill was reintroduced in the Senate in February. The bill would prevent the plant-based milk alternative industry from using “milk” or other dairy terms in labeling.

To be honest, the chance for the bill to reach President Joe Biden’s desk for signature is probably next to nothing. 

At the end of the day, the cow’s milk debate isn’t so much about nutritional values of plant-based milk alternatives but America’s disenchantment with drinking cow’s milk in the first place. Daily per capita consumption of fluid milk has fallen over each of the last seven decades (that’s not a typo). And the rate of decline is accelerating.

FDA voluntary “milk” labeling guidelines won’t reverse that trend. Nor will the Dairy Pride Act. Consumers who just flat out prefer buying soy milk are smart enough to know that it isn’t cow’s milk and probably aren’t overly concerned with nutritional differences. And voluntary labels aren’t going to change those views.

Type of work:

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

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David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor...