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Just Because It’s White Doesn’t Mean It’s Milk

Agri-tude

For most of my life, it seems, I’ve been on some kind of weightloss diet. So it’s fairly typical for me to pick up a food package at the supermarket and turn it over to reveal how many calories and fat per serving it has listed in that annoyingly small print.

The information helps me to decide whether the item goes into my cart or stays on the shelf.

Whether it’s nutritional information, maybe a recipe on the back or even puzzles and games for the kids, consumers are attracted to and read food labels for any number of reasons.

Listing the ingredients also is helpful to those with health issues or food allergies. It’s a reasonable expectation to have accurate information about your food on the label so buyers can make appropriate choices.

But there is a labeling problem afoot in your grocery’s refrigerated section and it’s hurting dairy farmers everywhere.

The problem is two fold. First, manufacturers of plant-based beverages — like soy, almond and rice drinks — are labeling them as milk when they are clearly not.

Being a white liquid doesn’t make it milk.

Second, the federal government has failed miserably to enforce its food labeling laws, which promotes inaccuracy and unfairness in the marketplace.

According to a long-existing Food and Drug Administration guideline, any food item labeled “milk” — as well as other dairy foods like cheese, ice cream and yogurt — must come from an animal source.

However, the FDA has chosen not to enforce this standard, designed to promote truth in labeling in the supermarket.

The makers of imitation dairy beverages are taking advantage of this negligence and cashing in.

The nondairy alternative drink market is reported to be a $2 billion annual industry, and sales are expected to continue upward with some predictions going as high as a 50 percent increase over the next five years.

Meanwhile, dairy milk consumption has steadily declined, dropping 25 percent from 1975 to 2012, according to the USDA. The depressed prices we see on our farms are a clear reflection of fewer people drinking milk.

But there is new legislation proposed called the Dairy Pride Act that would protect the integrity and proper usage of food labels.

Introduced in the federal House and Senate in January, it would require the FDA to enforce its food labeling laws and prevent companies from describing their copycat alternatives with milk’s good name.

I hope my Pennsylvania lawmakers will join me in supporting this bill.

Without FDA’s engagement on this issue, companies can skirt the law and freely promote their nutritionally inconsistent — and often inferior — imitations by using imagery and terms associated with real milk’s positive reputation.

Doing this creates inaccuracy in your grocer’s dairy case, and it’s unfair to consumers.

By using the term “milk” on their product labels, these companies imply that their drinks are suitable replacements for conventional milk. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Cow’s milk is a powerhouse of nutrition. It’s an excellent source of protein and calcium, and it offers a consistent package of nine vitamins and minerals.

Taking a few nuts or seeds, pulverizing them together and infusing the result with emulsifiers, sweeteners and thickeners does not make them a nutritional substitute for the real thing.

Buyers beware: Some plantbased drinks can be high in sugar and sodium, and contain minimal nutritional benefits.

Imitators are riding on the dairy industry’s coattails, which hurts dairy farmers who work hard to produce and promote a healthy product.

This type of labeling regulation is not new. It’s been on the FDAs books for the last 50-plus years, and this new legislation doesn’t actually create a new regulation. It just tells FDA to do its job.

Canada, the United Kingdom and members of the European Union all enforce their own version of this law, compelling companies to label their alternatives as beverage or drink even if they’re a U.S.-based dairy imitator selling their brands abroad.

The United States needs to join the table and do the same.

Lisa A. Graybeal is the chairwoman of the Lancaster County Agriculture Council. She was a journalist for 10 years before returning to her family’s 1,200-acre dairy farm in southern Lancaster County.

Lisa Graybeal

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