With interest in drinking cows' milk waning, especially in Western Europe and the United States, and the popularity of plant-based milk rising, the Netherlands-based Rabobank in May advised dairy producers to diversify with investments in their alternative-dairy competitors. The major agribusiness lender noted: "Global retail sales growth for dairy alternatives has soared at a rate of 8 percent annually over the last ten years."
The dairy industry is fighting back against the plant-based competition. One weapon is a campaign to prevent Big Dairy's rivals from using coveted terms such as "milk" and "cheese" on product packaging. Under intense industry lobbying, the Food and Drug Administration may soon issue new guidance — the agency on Sept. 28 issued a request for comments "on the labeling of plant-based products with names that include the names of dairy foods such as 'milk,' 'cultured milk,' 'yogurt,' and 'cheese.'" Last year Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) introduced the Dairy Pride Act "to require enforcement against misbranded milk alternatives."
Critics of employing the words "cheese" and "milk" to describe plant-based products would maintain they are simply defending the traditional understanding of what those terms mean. Tell that to Benjamin Franklin. In 1770, according to Smithsonian.com, Franklin sent to America from London a few dried beans that he said were used by the Chinese to make "a cheese." The beans were almost certainly soy, the magazine said in March, and "cheese" was likely the translation of what a Spanish traveler to China, according to Franklin, had described seeing: "tau-fu." (Francis Bacon was nearly a century and a half ahead of Franklin in describing nondairy milk, writing in 1626 that "there be plants, that have a Milk in them when they are Cut.")
By the mid-19th century, soybeans were being introduced for cultivation in the United States, and in 1897 the term "soy-bean milk" appeared for the first time in a U.S. government publication. Also in the late 19th century, the physician and inventor John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg) began experimenting with making vegetarian foods, including using nuts for meat substitutes. In the 1940s, the term "soy meats" began appearing in U.S. food industry publications.
Still, America was slow to embrace plant-based meats and milk products. The 20th century was replete with hopeful introductions of alternatives that never quite caught on. In recent decades, though, food-production processes have steadily improved, turning out cow-free products that are ever more appealing to the American palate. Whether out of concern about health, climate change or animal welfare, people are finding manifold reasons to eat lower on the food chain.
Yet no change in the status quo comes without incumbent pushback. Beyond the FDA's contemplated action and Baldwin's Dairy Pride Act (longer version: Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act), which is still in a Senate committee, state lawmakers are also seeking to protect the barnyard lobby. This year, North Carolina moved to "prohibit the sale of plant-based products mislabeled as milk." Missouri recently enacted a state law requiring that only "harvested production livestock or poultry" can be marketed as "meat."
To hear these lawmakers tell it, American consumers must be awfully confused. Or dim. Do shoppers really need to be protected from the mistaken belief that almond cheese comes from cows or that a veggie burger involves ground beef?
The dairy industry's hostility to plant-based foods has a long tradition. In a Depression-era protest in Wisconsin against margarine, which was sometimes made from coconut oil, one demonstrator held up a sign that said: "Don't look for prosperity if you expect the American farmer to compete with the cocoanut cow." The battle against margarine had been going on for decades: Rose Eveleth, writing for Slate in July, noted that, in 1869, American dairy farmers sounded the alarm about "counterfeit butter," as one Wisconsin congressman put it while proposing to tax margarine producers into oblivion. By 1900, 30 states had made it illegal to dye margarine yellow. Some stipulated that it be dyed pink.
As foolish as mandatory pink margarine sounds in 2018, similar ill-conceived efforts to thwart plant-based foods abound today by appealing to tradition. But you don't have to be as smart as Ben Franklin to recognize that these efforts are in keeping with a rather different American tradition: good, old-fashioned protectionism.