Lawmakers accuse soy, almonds of diluting milk's brand

Published: Mar. 22, 2019 at 4:52 PM EDT
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There’s a congressional food fight underway in the nation’s capital.

Walking down the dairy aisle leaves some lawmakers with a sour taste in their mouths. They argue plant products – like soy and almond milk – are cashing in on dairy’s brand.

"When something calls itself milk that has nothing to do with cows or goats or hooved animals, it’s not milk," said Sen. Angus King (I-ME). Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) feel similarly. "if a label is supposed to mean something, it should be accurate, that’s the bottom line," he said.

Welch is the author of a bill in the U.S. House designed to force milk-alternatives to rebrand, by asking the the Food and Drug Administration to narrow its definition of 'milk'. King is supporting the Senate plan. All told, the idea has the support of lawmakers from 15 different states.

"This is about making it clear that milk has a specific meaning," Welch said.

The F.D.A is already considering whether to define milk sold in stores as only coming from animals with hooves. But, its commissioner is preparing to step down, and lawmakers are concerned his replacement may not consider the issue a priority.

Those who lobby for plant-based alternatives to animal products on Capitol Hill said forcing label changes would be misguided, and create an uneven playing field. "I’m all for helping these farmers, but I think we need to do it without trampling on the first amendment," said Ken Forsberg with the Good Food Institute.

Forsberg said shoppers understand what it means when they see the word ‘almond’ or ‘soy’ in front of the word ‘milk’. And, he argues anyone interested can easily find the nutritional facts on the back of the carton.

"We think consumers have all the information they need on these packages to know what they’re getting," he said.

So, what impact would changing labels have on products like almond and soy milk?

"I think there’s a good chance that you would see some of these almond milks, soy milks take a revenue hit of some sort," said Georgetown University Marketing Professor Karthik Easwar.

Easwar said it’s not just about how the label changes shoppers’ choices.

He said new branding could lead stores to start stocking soy and almond products further away from dairy. And, the greater the distance in-store, the bigger the hit to the bottom lines for milk alternative producers, "because, right now, they are able to market themselves as a very clear substitute to milk."

Easwar said those looking for cow milk are more likely to be confused by alternatives than vice versa. He said the same is likely true of those who know the nutritional differences between them.

This isn’t the first-time lawmakers from dairy territory proposed narrowing milk’s definition. Congress didn’t seriously consider it last session – it’s not clear if that will change moving forward.