For years, dairy processors and dairy producers have argued that makers of soy, almond and other plant-based beverages are stepping on their toes by trading on the good, nutritious name of milk.

What is milk? “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” That’s not Webster speaking. That’s how Uncle Sam defines it in his United States Code of Federal Regulations. As the CFR notes: “Standards of identity are legal definitions of food products.”

Marketers of plant-based foods have appropriated dairy’s good name to promote nondairy versions (known as analogues) of cheese, yogurt and ice cream. No thinking MBA would ever market a food as a “yogurt analogue.” Instead, these foods are labeled as “dairy-free shreds” or “dairy-free yogurt alternatives” or “almond milk frozen desserts.”

So how can those other guys making beverages with almonds, soy beans and cashews get away with labeling them as milk? That’s what the dairy industry wants to know. Dairy producers and dairy processors don’t agree on everything, but on this issue they are united. The use of “milk” should be reserved for dairy milk.

Pride in what they make

The dairy industry has found an ally in U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). In January she introduced legislation to stop the mislabeling of nondairy products, which she called an “unfair practice.” Her “The Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act” (boiled down to the Dairy Pride Act) would forbid products made from nuts, seeds, plants and algae to be labeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt or cheese.

Bongards Creameries, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, First District Association, Dairy Business Association, Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative, Mid-west Dairymen’s Company and Scenic Central Milk Producers are among supporters of the legislation (officially Senate Bill 130).

“Dairy farmers in Wisconsin work tirelessly every day to ensure that their milk meets high standards for nutritional value and quality,” said Baldwin in a statement announcing the act. “Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced. Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers. That’s why I’ve authored the Dairy Pride Act to take a stand for Wisconsin farmers and the quality products they make.”

She added that although federal regulations are clear, the FDA has not enforced them. The mislabeling of products hurts dairy farmers and has “led to the proliferation of mislabeled alternative products that contain a range of ingredients and nutrients that are often not equivalent to the nutrition content of dairy products.”

‘Good’ regulation

While business leaders’ knees reflexively jerk at the mention of regulation, Baldwin’s bill is something the dairy industry was quick to embrace. I also must point out dairy processors’ participation in the plant-based “milk” business. Some dairies bottle these beverages on a contract manufacturing basis or sell them in their own portfolio. The most prominent is WhiteWave (a division of Danone). The Colorado-based processor of Horizon organic (dairy) milk also owns the leading brand of almond milk (Silk). This is not to say that dairy processors should not be making other products that consumers want. It is just to note that dairies themselves describe their products as “almond milk.”

Off-shore competitive pressures

The other heavy lift for the dairy lobby this year is international trade. There are many fronts to this battle. The International Dairy Foods Association and its brethren are pushing the appropriate governing bodies to enforce the terms of existing trade treaties. IDFA’s Beth Lyons explains on page 22 how Canada is flouting its trade obligations. The situation is so bad that dairy organizations around the world have called on the World Trade Organization to resolve the dispute.

Then there is the ongoing beef with the European Union over common food names. EU rules would restrict U.S. cheesemakers from using feta, asiago and Parmesan on their labels. (The EU says feta is reserved for cheeses made in Greece.) Citing a study by Informa Economics, the IDFA says that enforcing these so-called geographic indicators “would cost the U.S. dairy industry billions of dollars, slash domestic cheese consumption and increase prices for consumers.”

The U.S. dairy industry also has to push for new trade deals that open up markets for their milk, cheese and powders. Trade with Asia is now problematic. One of President Trump’s first official acts was killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both candidates for president kicked the TTP hard during the campaign, and it never stood a chance of being approved by Congress. Still, IDFA, National Milk Producers Federation and other dairy groups supported it.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is still in force, but Trump is threatening to rewrite it. Dairy processors and farmers need access to foreign markets. Trade means sales and jobs in the United States and better nutrition throughout the world. The industry has to make its case on Capitol Hill as well as on Pennsylvania Avenue.