Milk, it’s whats for … wait, what exactly IS milk anyway?


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Marc BrazeauMarc Brazeau | Editor | Food and Farm Discussion Lab | @eatcookwrite

Oh my. Another skirmish in the Meaning Wars.

A new battle over What is Milk?

I wrote recently about the US Cattlemen’s Association’s battle to get the USDA to more tightly define the terms “beef” and “meat” to explicitly exclude even the hint that plant-based meats are “meat” or “beef” or even “beefy”. They want to ensure that nobody is ever confused about whether a plant meat is beef. Fair enough, but it seemed to me that their logic didn’t play well with the direction most of the food and ag industries would like to see the regulation of novel plants and animals go. They’d prefer regulation according the properties of the product, rather than the process used to derive it. And as plant meats improve, their properties are converging with animal meats. Last year the dairy industry in Europe won a ruling stopping the makers of plant milks from using the word ‘milk’.

This week we get news that the FDA is upset that a dairy farmer skimming the fat from his milk has the temerity to call the product “skim milk”. George Mason economist Alex Tarrabok:

The FDA’s control over labeling is more powerful than it appears because it can be used to define what a product is. The FDA, for example, can’t force milk producers to add vitamins to milk but by defining milk as including certain vitamins they can say that milk without these vitamins is mislabeled! This is exactly the case with dairy farmer Randy Sowers and South Mountain Creamery. South Mountain Creamery sells skim milk, i.e. milk with the fat skimmed off. The FDA, however, wants skim milk to contain as many vitamins as whole milk so they define skim milk as including vitamin A and D. If farmers want to sell skim milk and call it “skim milk” they have to add vitamins. To avoid prosecution the FDA is requiring South Mountain Creamery to label their skim milk, “imitation skim milk”! Yes. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Real Skim Milk is Imitation Skim Milk. Sowers and the Institute for Justice are suing on First Amendment Grounds.

He points out that the FDA is likely on shaky ground here and will likely loose.

Randy Sowers of South Mountain Creamery.
Randy Sowers of South Mountain Creamery.

When the Maryland-based South Mountain Creamery started selling their milk in Pennsylvania, they were required to start labeling their skim milk as “imitation skim milk”. They responded by suing the FDA and the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.

There’s method to the madness

Though this does seem a frivolous intrusion by the FDA, and it’s impossible not to be pulling for a farmer with Maryland’s first on farm dairy processing. To be honest it seemed like a slam dunk to me until I found out the triggering event was selling across state lines. In terms of setting reasonable standards to meet the needs and expectations of consumers in a mass market, the FDA’s rules are actually, pretty reasonable. When they are applied to a quirky niche market, they can seem arbitrary and unnecessary, but just as I feel there should be accommodations made to sell raw milk into non-mass markets to motivated consumers, the ability to sell unlimited amounts free of regulation to the entire state of Maryland seems a pretty reasonable accommodation. “Imitation skim milk” wouldn’t have been the nomenclature I would have opted for, but perhaps it’s better than “Skim milk of sub-par nutritional value”.

The Institute for Justice video explainer on the case.

There is an reasonable argument for having a definition of milk that sets nutritional standards for the use of the term “milk” in commercial sales. The most obvious is the public health reason for the rule in the first place. Consumers have a certain conception of what nutrition they can expect when they purchase milk and it’s the FDA’s job to vouchsafe and backstop that. Though, no industry likes regulation,  there’s a reason the dairy industry should be four square behind setting nutritional standards for the use of the term ‘milk’. Plant milks generally deliver substandard nutrition compared to cow’s milk. Rather than fighting a rearguard action over the use of the term ‘milk’ as happened in the EU, the dairy industry could be pushing for the nutritional standards for cow’s milk to be extended to their plant based competitors. You could imagine the dairy industry partnering with public health advocates to lobby for new standards, especially for children’s health because parents do rely on milk for kid’s nutrition much more than adults lean on milk to deliver full nutrition. Many parents do not realize that plant milks are deficient compared to cow’s milk.

It continues to be fascinating to watch the Meaning Wars in the food industry. For philosophy professors looking for assignments to put their sophomores through their paces, it will remain a target rich environment for some time to come.

Read more:
• More at Stake in the Battle to Define Meat Than Meets the Eye
Test Drive: The Beyond Burger
Plant Meat 2.O Goes Mainstream

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