Originally published in Drovers by Will Coggin on March 22, 2019:
To say that history often repeats itself is an understatement when it comes to the plant-based foods revolution. Identity crises, labeling issues, and spats with technology abound. For everyone uncertain about what the future will hold for meat as it squares off against plant-based and laboratory-cultured alternatives, look no further than what happened to dairy.
For a long while, the milk industry didn’t take the market threat posed by soy and other plant-based milks seriously. As historian Nadia Berenstein puts it, soy milk was “the food equivalent of a hairy-legged gal in Birkenstocks: joyless and unappealing to most people, but there was always a niche of enthusiasts who couldn’t get enough.” So when sales for plant based milks began to climb in the late 2000s, dairy producers dismissed the growing popularity as a fad.
Yet in the intervening years, plant-based milks proved their staying power. With an almost $2 billion domestic market, soy, almond, and other plant-based milks now make up 13 percent of all milk sales in the U.S. They’re a staple in mainstream grocers, occupying valuable shelf space once solely belonging to dairy milk.
The small faction of dairy farmers who saw the writing on the wall decided that the milk wars could be won through labeling. By forcing their competitors to call the non-dairy products “almond beverage” or “soy drink,” dairy farmers believed that consumers would stop seeing them as a substitute for cow’s milk.
The labeling campaign sparked a 20-year effort to convince the Food and Drug Administration to enforce its formal definition that milk is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” With the exception of an acknowledgment from outgoing FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb that “an almond doesn’t lactate”, milk producers have made little progress on the labeling front.
Yet even if cow’s milk had been the only “milk” so labeled, the war of words still failed to address the root of shifting consumer preferences.