·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

News & Politics

Milk By Any Other Name

— December 27, 2016

The dairy industry has been having a rough time of late. Milk prices have dropped 40% since 2014, causing a bit of a panic among dairy farmers. Meanwhile, sales of dairy alternatives such as soymilk have been soaring. As a result, there’s a bipartisan effort to address the definition of the word “milk,” as if that meaning were unclear to American shoppers.

Congressmen Peter Welch (D-VT), Mike Simpson (R-ID), and 30 of their fellow representatives penned a letter to the FDA, requesting that they enforce the legal mandate that only “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows” be called milk.

Boy, that sounds appetizing, doesn’t it? How about some nice cookies and lacteal secretion? (It’s practically free from colostrum!)

Dairy industry says milk alternatives should not be called “milk,” by CBS This Morning

I’m sure that this Congressional effort on their behalf is popular among dairy farmers. Defining the term “milk” is also well within the purview of the FDA. However, I think this effort is misguided on a few levels. First, I’m not sure that consumers of alternative milk-like beverages are as snookered as Congress seems to think. Sure, there are always a few people whose version of common sense leads them to faulty reasoning, like believing that plant-based milks can be called “milk” because they contain the same nutrients as dairy milk. I also once overheard a conversation at Whole Foods where a customer told his son that soy milk came from cows that were fed soybeans. There’s plenty of facepalm material out there, and there are reasons that those aseptic boxes warn you not to use the stuff as baby formula. But do most consumers of plant-based milks, who may be making their choice due to lactose intolerance or a vegan diet, really think they’re buying a box of dairy? I think not.

If the decline in milk sales is not the result of misguided shoppers fooled into buying alternative milk, what’s the problem? Economics, mostly. The current glut of dairy products has its origin in a spike in milk prices from 2014, when many upwardly mobile Chinese, distrustful of their own agricultural products and processed foods due to pollution and shady manufacturing practices, began to buy a lot of American dairy products, especially powdered milk. Sensing opportunity, dairy farmers ramped up production, only to find that customers didn’t continue to magically appear. A lot of the excess milk, which is perishable, has been turned into cheese, a less perishable product, and optimistically warehoused. Unfortunately, that’s about three pounds of cheese for every American man, woman, and child to gobble down, on top of what we already eat. Good luck with that.

Our dairy overproduction problem goes back further, though. During World War II, powdered milk from American farms was a convenient and nutritious product we could send overseas, nourishing both the troops and the Europeans whose food production efforts were compromised by the fighting. American farmers turned a diversity of crops and livestock into large-scale dairy production to meet demand, and after the war ended, had too much invested to return to older ways.

How big government helps big dairy sell milk, by Vox

When there is more supply than demand for a product, the market is supposed to respond by incentivizing some producers to supply something else, or go out of business. Then as now, though, rural America had a strong voice in government, and instead of diversifying, they relied on government to prop up the dairy industry. This is why school lunches mandated a serving of milk every day, why blocks of surplus government cheese nourished the poor, and why dairy came to be considered a vital part of the four food groups, along with whatever else the industry wanted to sell more of. We still do this: a program resulting from cooperation between the USDA and the dairy industry convinced Domino’s to market a pizza with 40% more cheese, and talked McDonald’s into adding another slice of processed cheese product atop their burgers.

1943 USDA nutrition chart showing the "Basic 7" food groups. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
1943 USDA nutrition chart showing the “Basic 7” food groups. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Enforcing a narrower definition of the word “milk” is a desperate move by a desperate industry that needs, instead, to find a business model that fits into what modern consumers want to buy. Fortunately, there are real answers out there. We just have to change the way we farm.

Currently, very few milk producers, neither plant-based nor the lacteal secretion variety, are truly environmentally friendly. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or “factory farms,” are famous for being environmental disasters, from ruminant methane burps to manure lagoons. However, soybean farms are monocultures that encourage massive pesticide and herbicide use, California almonds require a lot of water from depleting aquifers during a drought, rice farms belch methane, and coconut products must be transported a long way to be sold in American markets. What gives?

Fortunately, there are ways to produce milk that are not only sustainable, they are kinder to the animals and sequester carbon at the same time. Managed, intensive, rotational grazing of cattle, mimicking the way ruminants lived for thousands of years, not only builds topsoil quickly (while bringing atmospheric carbon into the soil), it creates a more nutritious product. Converting our dairy industry to a new model might be a way to both save American livelihoods while providing better food for consumers. Plus, it would align the interests of both rural conservatives and urban liberals, which, frankly, would be a benefit to everyone.


Stop calling almond, soy and rice milks ‘milk,’ 25 members of Congress say
Soy, Almond, Coconut: If It’s Not From A Cow, Can You Legally Call It Milk?
Dairy farmers are losing the battle over ‘milk’
FDA urged to settle fight over what can be called milk
The Welch-Simpson Letter (PDF)
Milk-Off! The Real Skinny on Soy, Almond, and Rice
Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters
Investigation: “Factory Farms” Producing Massive Quantities of Organic Milk and Eggs
Organic Valley Just Became the Largest Grass-Fed Organic Dairy Producer in the U.S.
America now has 1.2 billion pounds of excess cheese — and nowhere to put it
Schwartz, Judith D. Cows save the planet and other improbable ways of restoring soil to heal the earth. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2013. Print.

Join the conversation!