Is the US dairy industry’s attempt to stop plant-based producers from using terms like ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’ to describe their products a farce?
In apparent concern for consumers, the dairy industry claims people could be easily misled by names like ‘soy milk’ – leading unwitting customers to buy products they don’t really want.
Because of this concern, the industry has long been lobbying the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] to punish plant-based producers for using these nomenclatures.
Now a series of emails uncovered by The Good Food Institute reveals that the US Department of Agriculture [USDA] would like to use the term ‘soy milk’ in its communication and educational materials.
The Good Food Institute’s Emily Byrd writes: “That’s because soy milk is precisely the term consumers are most familiar with and that best describes the product.
“Put differently: It’s the least misleading term one could possibly use. And that doesn’t make the dairy industry’s motives look so great.
“Instead of ‘protecting consumers’, the dairy industry is clearly trying to protect its own profits, at the expense of consumer choice and the expense of companies that are creating more sustainable plant-based alternatives.”
According to reports, the USDA wanted to use the term ‘soy milk’ for clarity. An advisor wrote: “USDA staff are preparing consumer publications and fervently want to use the term ‘soy milk’ because beverages are widely marketed this way.”
But the FDA hit back, claiming it’s not a ‘trivial decision’, and saying the federal definition of milk is a ‘lacteal secretion’ from cows, and so the use of the word to describe plant-based beverages would be inaccurate – a better term, it advised, would be ‘beverage’ – or ‘fortified beverage’.
The FDA went as far as warning that the use of the term ‘soy milk’ would undermine its regulatory authority.
But the USDA wanted to use what it described as ‘plain language’ in its materials for the public, though it indicated it would used the phrase ‘soy beverage’ in official policy documents. According to sources, 2011 materials show it did use the term ‘soy milk’ in educational literature.
The National Milk Producers Federation says even other government agencies are confused about how to describe soy drinks, as demonstrated the USDA’s use of the term ‘milk’.
The federation claims this is due to an absence of ‘consistent enforcement by the FDA’.
The FDA declined to comment.
Now the GFI is petitioning the FDA to allow organizations to use the term ‘soymilk’.
The Institute’s Emily Byrd writes: “The FDA has been allowing companies and governing bodies to use the term soymilk for years. With our Official Rulemaking Petition, GFI is simply asking the FDA to codify what it’s already been allowing in practice.”
You can find out more about the GFI’s petition here.