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Dairy producers in dispute over ‘fake milk’

Industry says almond, soy and rice milks are masquerading as the real thing

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Is “fake milk” spoiling the dairy industry’s image?

Dairy producers are calling for a crackdown on the almond, soy and rice “milks” they say are masquerading as the real thing and cloud the meaning of milk. A group that advocates for plant-based products, the Good Food Institute, countered this week by asking the Food and Drug Administration to say terms such as “milk” and “sausage” can be used as long as they’re modified to make clear what’s in them.

It’s the latest dispute about what makes a food authentic, many of them stemming from developments in manufacturing practices and specialized diets.

DiGiorno’s frozen chicken “wyngz” were fodder for comedian Stephen Colbert. An eggless spread provoked the ire of egg producers by calling itself “mayo.” And as far back as the 1880s, margarine was dismissed as “counterfeit butter” by a Wisconsin lawmaker.

The U.S. actually spells out the required characteristics for a range of products such as French dressing, canned peas and raisin bread. It’s these federal standards of identity that often trigger the food fights.

Though soy milk and almond milk have become commonplace terms, milk’s standard of identity says it is obtained by the “complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” That’s a point the dairy industry is now emphasizing, with the support of lawmakers who last month introduced legislation calling for the FDA to enforce the guidelines.

“Mammals produce milk, plants don’t,” says Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.

The federation says it has been trying to get the FDA to enforce the standard since at least 2000 , and the lack of enforcement has led to a proliferation of imitators playing “fast and loose” with dairy terms.

Those products often refer to themselves as “soymilk” or “almondmilk,” single words the dairy industry says is a way to get around the guidelines for “milk.”

The Plant Based Foods Association, which represents companies like Tofurky and milk alternatives, says standards of identity were created to prevent companies from passing off cheaper ingredients on customers. But the group says that’s not what soy, almond and rice milk makers are trying to do.

Those companies are charging more money, and consumers are gravitating toward them, says Michele Simon, the group’s executive director.

The FDA says it takes action “in accordance with public health priorities and agency resources.”

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