Dairy Wars Coming to Food Industry

Go to the dairy section in any grocery store and most convenience stores and what do you see? Rows of milk, cottage cheese, butter, yogurt and … soy or rice? Yep. “Alternative” milk is taking over facing space in the dairy aisle, and some within the industry are not having it. They say “fake” milk is being intentionally mislabeled as the “real” thing and it needs to be mooooved over to the organic aisle.

Leading this charge to make a change are members of America’s dairy producers, who are livid that they are losing shelf space to products that aren’t, technically, dairy at all. While soy and rice “milk” are considered healthy alternatives for some who prefer a meatless diet and for others who suffer from lactose intolerance, they aren’t really milk-based and, thus, not really dairy.

From the perspective of the grocer, though, if these are alternatives to certain products, it makes sense to make them simple to find in the stores. Margarine is next to the butter, has been for decades, so why not keep the soy or almond milk next to the dairy milk?

But the argument goes even deeper than that, right down to the fundamental terms being employed. The folks at Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based products, according to the Associated Press, want the Food and Drug Administration to allow them to use terms such as “milk” and “sausage” even when the products they are selling are not, literally, either “milk” or “sausage.”

GFI says they will gladly explain on the package how their products are not exactly what they claim to be if the FDA sees fit to allow them to use those terms in their marketing and packaging. No word yet from the bigwigs at the FDA.

This argument, though, goes back much further than this year. In recent years, fake chicken and eggless “mayo” have been fodder for debate and late night comedy roasts. Meanwhile, the debate of margarine goes back to the 1880s, when a lawmaker from … you guessed it … Wisconsin, said margarine was nothing more than “counterfeit butter.”

But why not give the GFI folks what they’re asking for. We’re nearly accustomed to referring to soy and almond products as “milk,” so what’s the big deal? Well, that, in itself, is the big deal, according to dairy producers. They want their words back, and they’re not going to back down without a fight. They claim milk must come from “one or more healthy cows” (sorry goats) and anything else is not just inferior, it’s not milk at all … and should not be classified as “dairy” in either packaging or point of sale.

This is a classic example of the power of words. The dairy industry doesn’t want someone changing terms because it eliminates their exclusivity and they depend on the public’s familiar understanding of those terms. Meanwhile, GFI and others want to borrow familiar terms in order to earn customer buy-in for alternative products. This is part psychology, part marketing strategy, and all about the power of language to influence decisions.

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