Buyer beware: Not all 'milk' is created equal

Jim Mulhern
The DAIRY PRIDE Act would require non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae to no longer be mislabeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.

To what extent Americans today have been influenced by fake news is debatable, but it’s beyond dispute that we’ve witnessed an explosion of
fake foods. Just as technology makes disseminating news of dubious origin and value much easier, advances in technology have also enabled
food scientists to whip up a variety of curious imitation foods.

This explosion in bogus foods is a key reason for a renewed focus on the federal government’s long-standing regulations on the labeling of many
common food products, including milk: to police the misleading marketing tactics of inferior offerings that pale in comparison to the real thing.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has for too long turned a blind eye toward enforcing the federal standard of identity
that stipulates milk has to come from the animal side of agriculture. FDA’s negligence has resulted in an eruption of imitation products masquerading as “milks” but made from decidedly non-dairy sources — from almonds, rice and soybeans, to hemp, quinoa and peas.

Let me be clear: Dairy farmers are not seeking to eliminate competition from these products, just the enforcement of existing regulations that you can’t label a food “milk” if it doesn’t contain specified levels of naturally occurring dairy components.

Jim Mulhern

From a nutritional standpoint, the stakes are high. In the absence of FDA action, people can be misled into thinking these highly processed products are nutritionally equivalent to milk when, in fact, none of them are.

That’s why our members support the DAIRY PRIDE Act , introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and in the House by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

This is a very simple bill. All it does is call on FDA to do its job. Nothing in the measure will affect the availability of any of these dairy imitators. It
merely assures that these fabricated products comply with existing labeling regulations that disallow clever wording combinations designed to suggest equivalence to a standardized food.

Dairy farmers take great pride in producing a safe, nutritious product that is the No. 1 source of nine important nutrients in children’s diets.

We welcome competition from plant-based imitators. What we object to is when these faux food marketers co-opt the universally recognized name,
reputation and image of milk, but don’t offer the same natural, unprocessed goodness of what they are mimicking.

They can take a handful of pulverized nuts or seeds, mix them with water, emullfifiers, whiteners and sugar, add some vitamins, then pour the
resulting concoction into a carton and inappropriately label it “milk.” But none of these fake milks match the natural, consistent and high levels of
nutrients, vitamins and minerals contained in the real thing.

It’s ironic that these imitators claim that people aren’t confused about these beverages, when in reality they go to great lengths to convert highly processed powders into something a long way removed from their vegetal origins.

It’s ironic that these imitators claim that people aren’t confused about these beverages, when in reality they go to great lengths to convert highly
processed powders into something a long way removed from their vegetal origins.

Interestingly, many other nations don’t allow this chicanery. For example, a major almond beverage brand sold in the United States is also sold in
Canada and the United Kingdom. But only in this country is the term “almond milk” displayed on the front label. Like the United States. Canada and Britain have regulations preventing use of the term “milk” on products that don't contain milk. But their governments actually enforce that standard while our own FDA is asleep at the switch.

There are certainly legitimate reasons why some people may choose to consume dairy imitators. We have no quarrel about their availability in the
marketplace. But the reason the government has standards for many foods is so that imitation products cannot pass themselves off as something they are not, particularly when their nutritional content varies widely, and is often inferior to the product they are seeking to emulate.

Mulhern is president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.