Dairy farmers built the reputation for ‘milk’

posted Jan. 23, 2017 9:56 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Julie Sweney

Over the last few weeks, the dairy case has garnered some attention.

In a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration in mid-December, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, along with 30 other members of Congress, requested “that the FDA exercise its legal authority to investigate and take appropriate action” against the manufacturers of misbranded products in the dairy case.

More recently, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., took a stand for Wisconsin dairy farmers, and ultimately all dairy farmers, by introducing the DAIRY PRIDE Act, to fight back against non-dairy products that are mislabeled as milk, yogurt and cheese.

DAIRY PRIDE stands for “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday.”

“Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced. Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers,” Tammy Baldwin said in regard to her new legislation.

These types of actions come at a time following another challenging year for dairy farmers, as prices plunged 40 percent since 2014. This request wouldn’t drastically change the outlook on the market forecast for dairy prices, but it would begin to provide clarification in the most important places of all: the grocery store.

Consumers today are flooded with flashy, colorful labels, with packages appearing to contain healthier and more wholesome ingredients than their counterparts on the same shelf. In the dairy aisle at the grocery store, these shelves now include products made from soybeans, rice, hemp, coconuts and almonds, nearly all of them labeled with the word “milk.”

Take a second and think about that. Why would these products bother to call themselves milk?

Because the dairy industry has done such a stellar job of producing a wholesome, high-quality and nutritious beverage. It’s a reputation every product would love to be a substitute for, though they can’t boast the same natural nutrition that comes with it.

Another reason why these products shouldn’t be called milk is simply that they’re confusing consumers. If a product says the word milk on it, you associate it with what you know milk to be — a great, natural source of vitamins and minerals. What really is milk?

Milk has a clear standard of identity, defined as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” This definition has existed as part of the Federal Code for more than 40 years, and therefore, the federal government has long had the authority to force other products to remove the word “milk” from their product label if they don’t follow this definition of milk.

Perhaps the more troubling aspect to this request is that this definition already exists with the FDA. They just haven’t enforced this definition upon these dairy imitators. While these plant-based products have been around for several years now, it is not too late to provide some much needed clarity on what real dairy is when it comes to milk, cheese and yogurt.

In fact, I would argue that it’s even more important for the FDA to get to work enforcing these proper definitions of such terms including milk, cheese and yogurt, so that other far-reaching and confusing labels can also be addressed. Food labels will continue to confuse consumers and use fear-marketing tactics, until the FDA begins to uphold its responsibility in providing this much-needed clarification. This is an opportunity for the FDA to earn confidence from consumers, if only it would do its job.

If we look beyond our country, Canada and the United Kingdom do not allow the use of the word “milk” as a name for dairy alternatives. In the U.S., these brands are sold with the word “milk” as part of their product names and on the packaging.

Surely, these products won’t disappear from store shelves. But maybe grocery stores will start to put them away from the refrigerated case, because unless the packages are opened, they don’t require refrigeration. And away from the refrigerated case means further away from the “dairy” section of the store.

It's about time that we’re taking a second look at the dairy case, and reminding all consumers what “milk” really is.

Julie Sweney is director of communications and marketing for the Madison-based FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative.

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