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Are you one of the ever-growing mass of people swearing off of cow's milk in favor of an animal-free alternative like nut or oat milk? Have you noticed a change in the packaging of what used to be called "soy milk" now being marketed as a much less enticing "soy beverage" instead? The reason for that is an strange one: Big Dairy.
Dairy sales have been declining for decades now, with prices dropping approximately 40% over five years. In contrast, sales for dairy-free cream and milk alternatives have skyrocketed in recent years, sending the dairy industry into a tizzy as fewer people take their morning coffee or cereal with cow's milk.
The dairy industry's solution to the problem? Establishing a monopoly on milk. No, not the product — the word. A dairy industry movement established in the last few years aims to restrict the use of the label "milk" to products only coming from hooved mammals and humans.
Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the fight between dairy and non-dairy companies is a lawsuit against Blue Diamond Growers, a prominent producer of almond milk. The unsuccessful suit alleged that their almond milk products should be labeled "imitation milk" because the nut-based alternative was a non-nutritionally equivalent imitation of dairy milk.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in favor of the almond growers in 2018, ruling that almond milk was neither an "imitation" nor a "substitute" for traditional milk.
That hasn't stopped other movements against the milk label, however. Then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb previously railed against such advertising, remarking that "an almond doesn't lactate." It does not appear that the FDA ever directly restricted the use of the "milk" term for non-dairy beverages, though, despite the wishes of the dairy industry.
A Virginia lawmaker introduced a bill in late 2019 that would criminalize labeling a drink as milk if it did not come from a human or hooved mammal. It passed both the state Senate and House of Representatives, but was vetoed by the governor.
Had the bill been passed, it wouldn't have taken effect until 11 other states passed similar legislation, presumably because it would be burdensome on manufacturers to make different labels for one state.
So why the name change if there's no law to force it yet? Some companies are likely anticipating a legal battle to come and are making the labeling switch now, so that consumers can get used to it. And if you're still concerned about the label, just remember that an oat beverage by any other name tastes just as oat-y.