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The surprisingly heated political battle raging over the word ‘milk’

Containers of Silk soy milk are displayed on a shelf at United Market in San Rafael, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Chances are you’ve never stopped at your grocery store’s dairy case, baffled by the difference between “soy” and “2%” milk. But the dairy industry says consumers are confused — and it’s launched a war to clarify the facts for them.

Industry-backed bills in the House and Senate have recently sought to ban the makers of plant-based products from using the terms “milk,” “cheese” or “yogurt.” In December, dairy lobbyists persuaded 32 legislators to demand that the Food and Drug Administration act on “imitation milk products.” Those efforts join preexisting initiatives, like a special logo that differentiates “real” dairy and several cutesy, industry-funded ads that champion milk over nondairy competitors.

The mysterious case of America’s plummeting milk consumption

Now, as plant-based product sales continue to soar, Big Milk is ramping up its lobbying efforts against the companies that it says have misappropriated milk’s good name. And the fledgling plant-based food lobby — arguably the David to milk’s Goliath — has promised to do the same.

The Good Food Institute just hired its first lobbyist. The Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group, has met with the FDA.

“The dairy industry is behind this, and they’ve got it all wrong,” said GFI’s policy director, Nicole Negowetti.

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The showdown between dairy and nondairy milks has been a long time coming. Consumption of conventional milk has been cratering since the 1950s, a product of both modern concerns about fat and the explosion of consumer beverage options after the World War II. In more recent years, sales of, first, soy milk and later almond, cashew, rice, coconut and quinoa milks, have steadily eaten into dairy milk’s already shrinking market share. According to Nielsen, almond-milk sales grew 250 percent between 2011 and 2016, a period when the milk market shrank by $1 billion.

The dairy industry is not exactly imperiled by this: Yogurt and cheese sales are both up, and much of America’s fluid milk gets turned into those products. But the industry still argues that the situation is fundamentally unfair — that it's being forced to compete with a product that does not play by the same rules in the market. Under long-standing FDA regulations, products labeled milk or cheese or yogurt must meet specific ingredient and composition rules.

Those vary from the obvious — such as the oft-referenced milk is “the lacteal secretion” of cows — to more obscure requirements on the presence of additives and emulsifiers. A product like Velveeta cannot be called cheese, for instance. But several vegan companies label their products “cheese,” even when they’re made entirely from additives, oils and flours.

On top of that, dairy milks have a standardized nutritional profile; plant-based milks vary widely.

“The idea that the dairy industry has to play by the rules and others don’t is part of the frustration,” said Beth Briczinski, the vice president for dairy foods and nutrition at the National Milk Producers Federation, the powerful industry group that has led the charge against the FDA. The other part of the frustration, of course, is that the FDA has repeatedly declined to weigh in on the subject — despite repeat pressure from both the soybean and dairy lobbies.

A spokesman for the FDA said that the agency’s policy has not changed, and that it prioritizes efforts to ensure that food labels are “truthful and not misleading.” Its last action on the milk issue was a brief aside in a much longer 2012 warning letter to a tofu company.

Unsatisfied, however, the industry has significantly ramped up its legislative efforts, hoping to force the FDA to act. The NMPF’s political action committee increased its donations in the 2016 election cycle, as did that of the International Dairy Foods Association. In December, 27 of the lawmakers who had received NMPF or IDFA PAC donations signed a letter to the FDA, demanding that it “initiate a thorough investigation” into plant-based food labeling.

A month after that, the NMPF consulted on twin bills in the House and Senate, which would likewise force the FDA to punish plant-based products that use dairy terms. The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) on Jan. 12, and the House version followed three weeks later. They have both been referred to committee.

It is unclear whether either bill will get a hearing: There are no current plans for one in the Senate or the House. But now that the issue is out in the open, both sides have promised to fight hard to pull lawmakers to their side — and, if necessary, to reach out to the public.

“I don’t want to reveal my whole strategy to the dairy people,” said Michele Simon, the executive director of the year-old Plant Based Foods Association. “But we are rallying our members to oppose this.”

Simon and others in the plant camp argue that consumers aren’t confused by nondairy milks; on the contrary, she said, most people who buy almond or cashew or coconut milk do it because they know it doesn’t come from cows or have the same nutrition. Their feeling is that “milk” is a functional term. If FDA chooses to set new rules for plant-based foods, Simon said, they shouldn’t come at the behest of the dairy industry.

At the end of the day, that’s the real issue: how industry influences the agency meant to regulate it. Before starting the Plant Based Foods Association, Simon — a lawyer who has long worked with progressive food organizations — wrote a book on the food industry’s political influence, titled “Appetite for Profit.” In it, she argues that “Big Food” has successfully turned the legislative and regulatory processes to its own end. Many policy experts said they agree with the sentiment.

“This is about marketing milk,” said Marion Nestle, a prominent food activist and professor at New York University. “People who drink almond or soy milk know perfectly well what they are doing.”

The irony, of course, is that Simon herself has since joined the political fray: In September, PBFA met with the FDA to discuss questions around plant-based food labeling, and it has hired Elizabeth Kucinich — the prominent organic food activist and wife of former congressman Dennis J. Kucinich — to make its case against the dairy bills to politicians.

Meanwhile, the American Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Association of North America jointly sent a letter Monday to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee opposing the House and Senate dairy bills. (ASA, which says it represents 300,000 soybean farmers, has more firing power than PBFA probably ever will.) And the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates plant-based and cultured meat alternatives, is readying a citizen’s petition to the FDA, calling on the agency to issue new guidance. Until then, they’ve hired their first lobbyist, placed op-eds about the dairy bills in several local papers, and launched a petition that, as of this writing, has more than 41,000 signatures.

Which faction will win is anyone’s guess. But it might not matter either way: Several dairy-free brands, including the behemoth Daiya, have already done away with some dairy labels without affecting their bottom line. Daiya simply calls its cheeses “shreds,” “slices” or “blocks;” its bagel-topper is a “cheeze style spread.”

“Dairy-free consumers are well-educated,” said Michael Lynch, the company’s vice president of marketing. “They read labels. … We know consumers get it.”

That presumably means consumers will still find their soy milk, even if it’s been renamed “soy beverage” or “soy drink.” Of course, that doesn’t have the same ring to it. Or so Big Milk is hoping.

More from Wonkblog:

For decades, the government steered millions away from whole milk. Was that wrong?

Why a top animal science expert is worried about the milk industry

‘Eat quinoa and drink soy milk': What an innovative food pyramid looks like