Should dairy alternatives be called milk?

What is milk? It may seem a simple question at first, but dairy producers across the country are finding themselves in the middle of a conversation debating the topic.

In recent years, livestock dairy alternatives like so-called almond milk, soymilk, rice yogurt, and much more have appeared on grocery shelves across the country. Such names have prompted a call by the dairy industry for products to stop infringing on the use of milk in labeling.

The issue was recently highlighted when just before Christmas, 32 members of Congress wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking them to enforce existing guidelines on the matter. The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) was among the many farm groups that quickly lauded the statement, saying milk should come from livestock while other products should not be using the term so generously.

“This is an issue that has concerned dairy farmers for many years now in that we have federal regulations that say dairy foods have to come from cows, or at least from other dairy animals, and you don’t “Got Milk” if it comes from a nut, a seed, a bean, or a grain,” said Chris Galen, spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation. “And yet we’re seeing increasingly more of these products in the grocer’s dairy case that don’t come from dairy animals. They’re labeled, as soy milk, almond milk, rice yogurt, even soy cheese and hemp milk. All these things of course are plant based, so all we’re asking the Food and Drug Administration to do is enforce the existing federal guidelines that provide clear standards for what can and cannot be called milk.”

NMPF has been addressing the issue for years, but Galen said this time is different with the push coming directly from lawmakers.

“Those regulations have not been enforced, so it’s good news now that congress is stepping in,” he said.

Galen posed a note of caution to consumers when seeing “milk” across various non-livestock products. He said the problem arises when consumers assume the word means a uniformly positive source of nutrients.

“The big concern for us is that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you don’t have the same amount of nutrition in these imitation dairy products. Some of them are fortified with similar amounts of protein, but not always,” Galen said. “In fact, the most popular ‘dairy imposters,’ almond and rice ‘milk,’ have very little protein at all. So if you’re a mom and you want to provide a nutrition powerhouse serving of milk to your kids — one that has protein vitamins A and D, calcium, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals — you know that you’re getting a consistent amount of that if you give them an eight-ounce glass of real milk.

“They’re imitations, but they’re not substitutes.”

Galen said it’s important to realize the advantages of traditional milk.

“That’s why we have standards. So that we have a consistent product delivered to consumers by each serving and yet we don’t have standards being enforced that would do that who would choose these plant-based imitators,” he said.

We know regular milk comes from a cow or other lactating animal. Where does the plant-based milk come from?

“It’s really a laboratory concoction where you take a handful of almonds and grind them up and add some flavorings and emulsifiers and things that are designed to make it look as much as possible like the original milk,” Galen said. “The same is true of rice, which of course is a grain, so you just take rice and mash it up in a laboratory and add these other things to make it look like milk.

“So that’s the irony here — while the plant-based foods defender wants to call rice milk or soy milk just as much as milk is applied to other terms, you really have to stretch a lot to take something like rice or almonds or even soy, mash them up, and add these flavorings to make them look like milk. And then you put it in a carton, same as what you may have real milk come from, and then put it in the dairy case. They’re doing all these things designed to imitate milk, and yet nutritionally, they don’t quite measure up.”

While NMPF has been in the spotlight recently for the look at milk labeling, Galen said there a number of other significant matters for the organization at this time, including work on the much criticized Dairy Margin Protection Program.

“There are several priority items for us because we have a new Congress in town right now, and then we’ll be having a new President here later in January,” he said. “Our number one priority is working with Congress to implement changes in the dairy safety net called the Margin Protection Program. It was created in the most recent farm bill more than three years ago. It has not lived up to its expectations. That needs to be fixed by Congress,” Galen said. “So what we’re doing as an organization is working through some possible changes this winter and then we’ll be presenting those at the end of the winter to Congress in the hopes that they can act on it in 2017.

“Other priorities include making certain that any changes in our trade policy, or our implementation of immigration policy — both of those are high profile national issues — are done in ways that don’t detrimentally affect the dairy industry.”

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