Call it the war on milk, or perhaps the war on what's not milk.
In the latest salvo in a nearly two-decades-old fight over what should and shouldn't be called milk, a group of more than 20 U.S. legislators sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration demanding it require the makers of soy milk, almond milk and rice milk to drop “milk” from the label of anything that doesn't come directly from an animal.
This comes as Americans consume less milk from dairy cows while sales of plant-based milks continue to grow.
Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, the home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and more than a quarter-million cows, told The Washington Post that the bipartisan letter is about protecting dairy farmers — and telling the truth.
“There's a proliferation of other drinks, and many of them are being placed in the dairy aisle right next to milk,” said Welch, a Democrat. “Dairy is really crucial in Vermont, and it’s really crucial in many parts of rural America, and (dairy farmers are) hanging on by their fingernails.”
He says the FDA “should enforce its regulations,” which has a specific definition of milk: “the lacteal secretion . . . obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”
Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, said her organization has conducted studies of shoppers and found that the “overwhelming majority” — 98 percent — don't confuse it with cow's milk. “Folks are selecting soy milk because they know it's not from dairy,” she said.
The Almond Board of California has yet to respond to calls for comment that were made after business hours.
Deborah Kotz, a spokeswoman for the FDA, told The Post in an email: “We have received the letter from Congress and plan to respond directly to the lawmakers.”
In the milk wars, the lacteal secretion of cows has been taking heavy losses.
According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, “total per capita consumption of fluid milk has declined because of competition from other beverages and a declining share of children in the population.”
On average, Americans drink nearly 40 percent less milk than they did in 1975, according to the latest data from the USDA.
Forty years ago, per capita consumption was nearly 1½ per day,” The Post previously reported. “Total per capita consumption of fluid milk has declined because of competition from other beverages and a declining share of children in the population.”
A CoBank study on the decline in consumption hints at Americans' cooling love affair with milk over the past four decades. “Fat content, flavorings, and added sugar have all been viewed with disdain as the country struggles with its child obesity epidemic,” the report says. There are even questions about whether most humans are biologically equipped to digest milk.
In 2015, sales of almond milk continued to grow while those for cow milk fell. A Nielsen survey in March filled with nutty puns and titled “Americans Are Nuts for Almond Milk” said almond milk makers have seen a sales growth of 250 percent over the past five years.
“So why is almond milk growth going nuts? While this beverage could have a dairy godmother watching out for it, the uptrend in sales is more likely the result of current health and wellness trends,” the report says. " . . . Consumers rated back-to-basics food attributes like “all natural,” “no artificial colors or flavors” and “made from vegetables or fruits” the most important.
This isn't the first time the labeling of plant-based 'milks' have been contested.
In 2000 and 2010, the National Milk Producers Federation wrote the FDA to argue for a more exclusive use of the word “milk” on labels. At the time, federation spokesman Christopher Galen told USA Today, “We had to do something,” which included creating a Facebook page: “They Don't Got Milk.”
Even if the FDA did institute a crackdown on the makers of plant-based “milks,” it's unclear whether it would do any real good for consumers, said Bruce Friedrich, the chief executive of the Good Food Institute, which supports companies and policies that promote clean meat and plant-based foods.
The institute plans to send a letter to the FDA protesting any restriction on the labeling of plant-based milk products.
“Americans are savvier and they are better able to digest nutritional information,” he told The Post. “No consumer buys a carton of almond milk and thinks that there’s cow’s milk in the package.”