AUGUSTA, Maine — A dispute over the labeling of products made from nuts and other dairy alternatives keeps churning, and two big-name Maine politicians are in the fight.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, joined six colleagues in signing a letter sent earlier this month to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf urging him to prevent “dairy imitation products” from using terms like milk, cheese and yogurt on labels.
“It is critical that FDA intervene to prevent this new violation committed by cell-based foods from compounding the harm Americans are already experiencing from FDA’s decades of inaction on plant-based mislabeling,” the senators wrote.
This labeling dispute has played out at the federal level for years, with dairy farmers and producers arguing plant-based or cell-based products cloud the meaning of “milk.” King and Collins have previously called out alternative milk producers in the past for using that term.
It is an example of how dairy farms continue to hold cultural sway in states including Maine, where the struggling industry has gone from nearly 4,600 farms in 1954 to well under 200 now. At the same time, the alternative milk industry is on the rise, with one estimate saying the market is expected to more than double globally through 2030.
King and Collins have backed versions of a bill called the DAIRY PRIDE Act that would require non-dairy products to no longer use labels with terms such as “milk,” “yogurt” or “cheese.” The legislation has stalled in the past, and this year’s version is unlikely to move forward as Congress grapples with a looming government shutdown.
In February, the FDA said soy, oat, almond and other alternative milk beverages can keep using “milk” in their names and labels, finding U.S. consumers are not confused by the difference. Research has also found most consumers understand nutritional differences between cow- and plant-based milk products.
The FDA’s draft guidelines for beverages — but not other products such as yogurt — also recommends producers clearly label products by the food source, such as “soy milk” or “cashew milk.” It asks for voluntary extra nutrition labels noting when the drinks have lower levels of nutrients than dairy milk.
“Accuracy in labeling” matters, said Jenni Tilton-Flood, who helps run Flood Brothers Farm, a dairy farm in Clinton and says labeling should not hinder the availability, the accessibility and affordability of those products.
“Mainers want a distinction of what food is on the shelf,” she said.
But consumers are not confused by plant-based “milk” products, Avery Yale Kamila, the “Vegan Kitchen” columnist for the Maine Sunday Telegram, said. Sometimes they even make an opposite discovery: products with “dairy-free” labels that actually contain cow’s milk.
The focus on labeling is distracting from discussions over why Maine’s dairy farms struggle, such as due to supply issues, an aging workforce and “forever chemical” contamination as well as climate change concerns related to cows’ methane emissions and extreme weather, Kamila, who grew up on a dairy farm in Richmond, said.
“What can we do to keep people on the land and make it sustainable?” she added.
A news release on the FDA letter signed by Collins and King noted Maine dairy farmers and creameries provide roughly 4,700 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs while generating about $1.9 billion in direct and indirect economic benefits.
Those on the plant-based side empathize with both the politicians and dairy farmers, but they don’t see the FDA making major regulatory changes anytime soon.
“I think their heart is in the right place,” Myranda McGowan, who founded The Whole Almond and sells her almond, cashew and other alternative milk products in the Portland area, said. “But at the same time, I don’t think it’s anyone’s intent to fool consumers.”