Don't blame dairy's decline on consumer confusion

Don't blame dairy's decline on consumer confusion
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The National Milk Producers Federation is petitioning the FDA to prohibit dairy-free products from being labeled with terms like milk or yogurt. Such government action would be costly for plant-based producers and it would also be bad for consumers.

Industrialized meat, milk and egg production is an affront to our humanity. It undermines our health and destroys the environment, while most citizens unwittingly support it with their daily food choices and tax dollar subsidies. But as consumers learn more about the negative consequences of factory farming and how it violates their values and interests, more people are seeking alternatives.

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Animal agriculture is facing increasing competition from more humane, sustainable and healthful products in the marketplace. The industry resorting to heavy-handed measures to maintain their preferential status and profitability. They’ve lobbied for anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” laws to prevent consumers from witnessing the cruelty of factory farming because when citizens are informed, they don’t want to support it. Agribusiness’ latest tactic is trying to undermine the increasing sales of plant-based products by regulating and preventing commonly used food labels. They’re going to court and lobbying to ban products like almond milk or soy milk, from being labeled as “milk,” spuriously arguing that these descriptions are confusing to consumers. In fact, these labels are more clear and truthful than labels used on cartons of cows’ milk, and consumers are not confused.

Last year, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by dairy interests against Blue Diamond, an almond milk producer, stating “[no] reasonable consumer could be misled by [Blue Diamond’s] unambiguous labeling or factually accurate nutritional statements.” And, a survey of 1000 adults by Lincoln Park Strategies found that fewer than one in ten respondents believed that branded versions of soy milk, almond milk, cashew milk, and rice milk contained milk from cows. The authors reported that “…a significant majority of people understand correctly which products contain and which do not contain milk from cows when shopping for various types of products labeled using the word ‘milk’.” Consumers are knowingly and increasingly purchasing alternatives to cows’ milk.

All milks, whether from plants or animals, should be labeled accurately and descriptively, including milk from cows, which should be labeled “cows’ milk.” A Zogby poll of more than 1,000 adults in the U.S. conducted in January 2019, found that 82 percent agree that the source of cows’ milk should be disclosed on labels, just like other milks. Zogby reported, “Many more adults these days are health conscious, and care about how their food is being sourced. It’s not surprising more than four in five adults support cow’s milk being required to label the source of its milk, if soy and almond milk are required to.” Makers of plant-based milks and other alternatives to animal products should be allowed to continue labeling their products in a clear and truthful manner, using everyday terminology that consumers understand.

Replacements for cows’ milk are commonly described with terms like “vegan,” “dairy-free,” or “non-dairy,” and consumers are increasingly seeking them out. According to the agribusiness journal Feedstuffs, “Per capita consumption of fluid milk beverages decreased by close to 22% from 2000 to 2016, yet during the same period, consumption of non-dairy plant-based milk alternatives increased by triple digits.” This trend is expected to continue, and it’s not because people are confused. It’s because people are informed. 

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Meanwhile, plant-based “meats” are also gaining ground with consumers. As in the case of dairy, the slaughter industry has attempted to quash competition by controlling how the word “meat” can be used and making a bogus argument that citizens are confused. In fact, companies selling veggie burgers and other plant-based alternatives to animal flesh want people to know their products are vegan, and they describe them accurately with labels like “made from plants” or “plant-based.” More and more consumers are trying them. The plant-based movement is gaining traction, which led The Economist to declare 2019, “The Year of the Vegan.” This lifestyle is soaring, especially among millennials, with a quarter of 25- to 34-year-olds saying they are vegans or vegetarians.

Animal agriculture depends on secrecy and euphemisms because its conduct is disturbing and outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in our society. If dairy and meat marketers really wanted consumers to know what they are buying, they would be transparent, and they would use descriptions like “bovine mammary secretion” for cows’ milk and “carcass” for meat from slaughtered animals, but they don’t. The good news is that consumers are becoming more aware, and they are acting on ethical, environmental, and health concerns, which means that the days of factory farming are numbered.

Gene Baur is president and co-Founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal rescue and advocacy organization, and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.