Dairy farmers want to prevent non-dairy products from being labeled as milk in the Commonwealth, and they have the backing of state legislators. But where do almond milk lovers stand in all this?
“I think it’s just false advertising,” said Hugh Jones, co-owner at Richlands Dairy Farms. “By definition, milk is secretion from an animal, and none of these nut ones calling themselves milk are milk at all.”
In an effort to assist Virginia’s declining dairy industry, state lawmakers from both parties are advancing legislation to prohibit dairy substitutes from using the term “milk.”
House Bill 119 seeks to define milk as “the lacteal secretion of a healthy hoofed mammal,” and ban products labeled as “milk” that don’t meet that criteria. The legislation was introduced by Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, and passed the house on Wednesday.
“Making almond or Soy milk is a chemical process they use to make so-called milk, and I think most nutritional studies show those substitutes aren’t as healthy as milk from a cow or goat,” said Jones.
The bill raises concerns for those in the Commonwealth who have vegan diets, cut dairy from their diet, or are lactose intolerant. Producers of dairy substitutes would have to re-label their products for sale in Virginia, but may not be willing to do so just to cater to certain states’ legal definitions.
Access to dairy substitutes is important for Madeline Doane, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, since she is lactose intolerant and often uses milk substitutes for baking and cooking.
“If I am no longer able to purchase alternative milk, my only option would be to figure out how to make them at home, but I don’t have the time for that,” said Doane. “It would be an issue when I go to coffee shops and they would only have regular milk choices.”
Even if producers were to change the title of their milk substitutes, some feel that the change would still lead to confusion for those who wish to use those products.
“If ‘coconut milk’ was changed to ‘coconut beverage,’ I would not assume it was milk and would probably look around for something that specifically said milk,” said Doane.
The bill was amended after being introduced, saying that 11 other states need to pass similar legislation to go into effect. The North Carolina legislature overrode a veto to pass a similar law in 2018. Mississippi reversed a similar law relating to veggie burgers after being challenged in court.
“If these products were to go off the shelves I would be pretty upset,” said Catherine Phillips, social work major at James Madison University. “I always thought it was weird to call almond and soy liquid milk since they aren’t being milked, but they are used for the same purposes, so I appreciate the accessibility within the term.”
For almost ten years, sales of dairy milk have decreased while sales of almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk and hemp milk have grown. In 2018, sales of plant-based milks increased 9 percent, while sales of cow’s milk fell by 6 percent.
“The dairy industry has been trying to get this legislation as soon as other non-dairy sources started putting products on the shelves over ten years ago,” said Jones. “Dairy farmers are such a minority and we just don’t have much of a voice anymore in legislation.”
There have been efforts in recent years to prohibit the sale of dairy substitutes that label themselves “milk.” The Dairy Pride Act was introduced in Congress in 2017 by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, to prohibit the sale of any food without dairy ingredients that uses the market name of dairy products.
“Almond milk is currently controversial because people say it’s worse for the environment,” said Phillips. “But simultaneously, cow’s milk is considered bad for animals and soy milk is considered bad for humans, so there’s no way to win.”