Alt-Milk vs Big Milk: The Fight Over the Future of Dairy

Photo Credit: Rachel Adams

Photo Credit: Rachel Adams

If you’re one of the 49% of Americans who enjoy their morning cereal with plant-based milks rather than the original substance, you may soon notice some different wording on your carton. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-MI) introduced a bill to the Senate in January that proposes “enforcement against misbranded milk alternatives.” Essentially, the bill wants to disallow plant-based milks, such as almond, cashew, hemp, or others, from using the term “milk” at all. The bill suggests that the term “milk” misleads consumers into buying non-dairy milk alternatives, which “do not provide the same nutritional content as real milk.” Those are some big claims, ones that won’t go unquestioned in this fight.

Baldwin, heralding from America’s second-biggest dairy state, is claiming that alternative milks use the term milk at the expensive of the real deal, defined as the “lacteal secretion...from one or more healthy cows.”

(Side note: let’s hope they come up with a better term than “lacteal secretion” for the ad campaign.)

It’s no doubt there’s big money in big milk ($35.5 billion dollars in 2012), and there’s also a precedent for arguments over the usage of dairy terms. New Food Economy points out that when margarine first came on the market, a costly battle ensued over their usage of the term butter, a fight with parallels to today. In this business, words matter.

The resolution of this battle is important, because across the globe, milk consumption is decreasing and alternative milk consumption is increasing. It’s hard not to see this bill as a power move by the dairy industry, one which may or may not pay off. Maine is a part of that dairy industry - one-fifth of Maine’s agriculture is made up of it - but we also have plenty of plant-based milk, too.

We’re not in favor of any milk over another. There’s enough room in the dairy aisle for everyone! But we are partial to innovation and entrepreneurship, and the nut milks made by our member The Whole Almond are a great example of industry shifting to meet new demands. Here's hoping we can keep choosing the "milk" we want, regardless of what it's called!