Getty: Jeff Greenberg / Contributor

A recent vote in the Senate is a win for American dairy farmers

Mike Pomranz
August 02, 2018

What is milk? The answer can be surprisingly complicated. The most obvious response is that milk is the white stuff from a cow that we pour on cereal. Not only cows produce milk, however; sheep, goats, and humans all do too. And what about things that are “milk-like”? Merriam-Webster includes the definition “a liquid resembling milk in appearance.” But the dairy industry thinks that’s going too far, and in the ongoing battle for the soul of milk, the US Senate recently took the dairy industry’s side.

Yesterday, the Senate voted 14 to 84 against an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that would have axed government funding “to enforce standards of identity with respect to milk,” as it stated. “Consumers are not deceived by these labels,” Lee said defending the proposal, which was co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, according to Roll Call. “No one buys almond milk under the false illusion that it came from a cow. They buy it because it didn’t come from a cow.”

The dairy industry has repeatedly shown interest in claiming the definition of milk for themselves, asking for government regulation preventing plant-based milks like almond milk, soy milk, cocnut milk, and other products from using the term. The topic has seen renewed interest as of late when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb hinted that he might be open to imposing such limitations on the word, stating last week, “One area that needs greater clarity … is the wide variety of plant-based foods that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for standardized dairy products.”

One outspoken opponent of Lee’s proposal was Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of (surprise) Wisconsin, who labeled the amendment “an attack on dairy farmers.”

Clearly, misusing the word “milk” could create confusion. If you changed the name of “orange juice” to “orange milk,” it wouldn’t make any sense. Meanwhile, milk can come with a positive connotation: for instance, “cow secretions” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But is the battle over “milk” really about protecting consumers and preventing confusion, or is there a larger element at play?

In a post on his official website last week, Lee laid out what he believes are the devious reasons dairy groups are really fighting to keep the lactation in milk. “These labeling requirements play right into the hands of the large, cronyist food industries that want to place new, innovative products at a disadvantage,” Lee wrote. “Because after becoming established and reaching success themselves, they aim to pull up the ladder behind them—preventing any of the small competitors from having a chance in a level playing field. Rather than playing fair and square, they stifle competition and rig the rules of the game in their favor.”

At the very least, the Senate believes it’s worth investing government funds to see if he’s right or wrong.

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