Foxgloves aren’t fox fashion, bellflowers don’t ring and the lily of the valley is not always of the valley. Gardeners and botany enthusiasts, however, have no trouble making the necessary distinctions. If they’ve been confused or harmed by the whimsical names of plants, horticulturists of all stripes have kept quiet.
Were certain policymakers in the majority, though, things might be different. You see, consumers are in danger of purchasing buttercups under the false impression they go well on toast, and band teachers might blow their budgets on trumpet vines. Blanket flowers, no doubt, need disclaimers.
Such is the logic, carried ad absurdum, of a new movement calling itself “truth in labeling” that would ban the use of terms like “milk,” “rice” or “meat” on labels for alternative food products. The movement’s arguments are condescending and cynical—but that’s not stopping its evangelists from spreading the gospel of food-name absolutism around the country.
Last summer, while speaking about future initiatives of the Food and Drug Administration, then-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb joked that “an almond doesn’t lactate, I must confess.” Within a few weeks, the FDA had announced it was reconsidering how it regulates “standards of identity,” or the rules governing how brands label their products.
Thus, Pandora opened her milk carton.
Lawmakers had previously kicked around the idea of stripping “milk” from plant-based beverages, but only North Carolina had actually passed legislation, albeit with some caveats. The law’s milk labeling restrictions wouldn’t go into effect until 2029 and only if 10 other states join a compact agreeing to implement similar rules.
But the FDA’s deliberations seem to have injected new life into the idea. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, for instance, recently signed legislation that will narrow milk’s definition strictly to “lacteal secretions” from “one or more healthy cows.” The bill does make exceptions for other “hooved mammals,” however, explicitly giving approval to milk from sheep and water buffalo. Camel’s milk, thank goodness, may also continue identifying as such.
On the national stage, lawmakers have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate bearing the cheesy title “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements in Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday.” Careful readers might pick out the acronym “DAIRY PRIDE.” Very cool, senators.
The label truther tent shelters more than dairy, however. Anticipating the introduction of lab-grown alternatives, Missouri narrowed its definition of “meat” to products “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” Arkansas followed suit in March, extending its label scrupulosity to competitors of the state’s rice growers.
“This law only affects people who want to deceive the public about how their food originated,” state Rep. David Hillman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “And if you’re not trying to deceive the public, this will not affect you or any of the outlets who sell these products.”
Verily, the blasphemous shall receive due retribution for daring to join the word “rice” with “cauliflower.”
Proponents of these bills invariably claim their legislation will protect consumers. But one wonders: Protect consumers from what, exactly?
If nondairy products were outright calling themselves “cow’s milk” or even just “milk,” perhaps it would be appropriate for regulators to intervene. But qualifiers like “almond,” “cashew,” “oat,” and “cockroach” (yes, that last one is real) do a fine job of distinguishing these products from lacteal secretions.
Food regulators really should give themselves more credit. For the small number of consumers honestly confused about whether farmers “milk” hemp, FDA-required nutrition facts and ingredient lists include all kinds of helpful information.
But, of course, the real constituency for milk labeling “reforms” is not consumers but the dairy industry. Americans are drinking less cow’s milk than they used to – a lot less, in fact – and farmers are feeling the squeeze. The Dairy Farmers of America, a trade group, recently announced its net sales had dropped by $1.1 billion last year.
Scratching “milk” off popular milk substitutes (or “meat” off meat substitutes) is a desperate ploy to preserve market share. It can be hoped that the plight of U.S. farmers improves, but wielding state power against competitors under the guise of consumer protection is not the answer to dairy’s woes.
Gottlieb’s departure from the FDA this spring may further delay the agency’s already belated decision on food labeling rules. Until it settles the matter, expect food industry lobbyists to continue milking the ambiguity of this situation for all its worth.
In the meantime, policymakers might consider that forget-me-nots don’t remember, dogwoods can’t bark, and not all mimosas go well with brunch. Consumers don’t seem particularly confused about those inconsistencies, nor do they require regulators to explain that, actually, an almond doesn’t lactate.
Caleb Whitmer is communications associate for Consumers’ Research. Founded in 1929, Consumers’ Research is the nation’s oldest consumer organization.