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Plant-Based Milks vs. The Dairy Industry

The battle between the dairy industry and plant-based milk products to limit the legal use of the term “milk”, while perhaps not earth-shaking, is an interesting example of how regulation can be used to clarify and limit the use of terms. And when you think about the business of the law, in reality, that’s what much of it is about. You can’t have regulation and law without a strict definition of many concepts. Food standards of identity (SOI) are requirements by the FDA that do just that.

Legal Definitions

For an example close to that of the dairy vs. other kinds of milk battle, think of the use of the term “organic.” Often, the legitimate use of that term boosts a product’s value by a substantial amount. But what exactly determines whether a product is organic? A governing body must set the standards to clearly outline what “organic” is considered to be. The USDA does this for many products.

Counterfeit Milk?

The term “milk” is not problematic in the same way. It’s not as if most consumers don’t realize almond or soy milk are not from cows. They certainly do. We know, for example, that almond milk has nothing to do with bovine lactations, but features a certain type of nut. The fight seems to boil down to a certain type of proprietary value that the dairy industry feels is connected to the term “milk.” And, doubtless, the products produced by those in the plant-based segment of the milk market have converted an increasing amount of dairy-product customers.

Smelling the Roses

Does a rose by any other name really smell as sweet? In this case, the dairy industry seems to say it does not. When governing bodies like the FDA make a determination to limit a term, like “organic”, or “meat” there are usually counterfeit products claiming to be something they are not. But the many non-dairy products that use the term “milk” simply seem to be using the term in a more general, but still accepted, way, similar to the way the term “juice” is used. It’s difficult to say how much economic value use of the term “milk” has. It seems slightly ridiculous to enforce limited usage at this late stage. Still, the final determination on who exactly can utilize the term “milk” hasn’t been made yet, although an upcoming FDA public meeting may do just that.