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Milk Pleads Its Case

Planet Cheese - January 29, 2019 - 11:00am

Is “cashew cheese” cheese? Is “almond milk” milk? The FDA wanted our opinion but the public comment period just closed. Not to worry. More than twelve thousand people weighed in on whether plant-based foods like soy milk should be allowed to keep their dairy-referencing names. Cheese has a standard of identity—a government-policed definition—and cashew brie does not meet it. Is it time for the FDA to step in and insist that “milk” and “cheese” are dairy products? Or is the dairy industry overreaching in arguing that consumers are confused?

Plant-based foods are a booming category. Many of them—like coconut gouda and almond-milk yogurt—include the name of a familiar dairy food. The FDA wants to know if consumers fully appreciate the difference. Do they understand, for example, that nut milks don’t have the same nutritional properties as their dairy counterparts?

Oleo fever: Margarine was illegal in Wisconsin for four decades. Residents would drive to Illinois on “oleo runs.”

“They have a perception that because it says ‘milk’ they’re getting all the nutrients that milk provides, but they’re not,” says Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of marketing for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. It’s hardly surprising that dairy farmers are alarmed. Milk consumption has plummeted in the U.S. in recent years and dairy farms are folding at an alarming pace. Wisconsin alone lost 700 dairy farms last year.

The popularity of plant-based beverages isn’t a primary cause but it’s a contributor. Surveys suggest that these beverages are responsible for almost 7 percent of the decline in milk consumption between 2016 and 2017. Dairy farmers just want the FDA to enforce existing regulations, says Geoghegan. If a product doesn’t meet the standard of identity for Cheddar, it isn’t Cheddar.

I spent an hour or so reading the public comments on the FDA’s website. Many were identical boilerplate statements sent by animal-rights activists. But here is another representative comment:

“I am not confused when I choose plant-based dairy alternatives at stores and restaurants. I intentionally choose items such as almond milk, soy yogurt, and cashew cheese for the health benefits; because they are better for the environment; and because they are produced without animal cruelty….A recent survey by the International Food Information Council Foundation concluded that over 90 percent of American consumers know that plant-based milks do not contain any animal milk….Big Dairy is attempting to manipulate the FDA into thinking that they have the consumer's best interest in mind when in reality their only interest is protecting their bottom line.”

The American Cheese Society position is that milk, milk products and cheese “and the terms used to define them must be protected and should always be used accurately in the interest of consumer transparency.”

 Certainly, canned coconut milk has been a grocery-store staple for years without aggravating dairy farmers. And peanut butter does not raise alarms about consumer confusion, as one commenter noted. Is this a battle we really need to have?

“Milk comes from lactating mammals,” says Jill Giacomini Basch, a proprietor of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese in California and the daughter of a dairy farmer. Soy milk and almond milk “are a juice or a plant extraction,” says Basch, “but they’re not milk. And because milk is required to make cheese, a soy-based or nut-based cheese shouldn’t be allowed to be identified as cheese.”

Based on the comments and consumer research, the FDA will do something…or maybe nothing. Planet Cheese readers, you love cheese. What’s your take on this? Please scroll to the Comments section and weigh in.

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