Why Is Congress Going After Alternative Milks?

© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

By Jillian Kramer Posted February 15, 2017

Look to the dairy industry.

Amid news that President Donald Trump's campaign team had repeated contact with Russia and that a top White House aide could face discipline for her unethical behavior, some members of Congress are turning their attention to another matter entirely—milk. Thirty-two legislators want the FDA to take a hard stance against alternative dairy products, such as soy and almond milk. But why—and why now?

The answer may be simple. Take a look at the National Milk Producers Federation's political action committee webpage, and you'll see that the organization has ramped up its donations in the latest election cycle, contributing $115,750 last year compared to $88,650 three years ago. The International Dairy Foods Association did the same, gifting $324,231 in 2016 and $269,072 in 2014.

A little more than a month after the election, 27 lawmakers who had received dairy funding signed a letter to the FDA, urging the agency to "exercise its legal authority to investigate and take appropriate action against" alternative milk products—also known as big milk's biggest competitors. The legislatures imply in the letter that alternative milk products have been so successful—their sales grew 250 percent in the last five years alone—because they're "mislabeled," and that leads ill-informed consumers to purchase almond or soy milk, thinking it comes from a cow.

When the letter didn't garner immediate action from the FDA, lawmakers on Jan. 12 introduced the Dairy Pride Act, a bill that would force the FDA to punish makers of alternative milk products—including yogurt and cheese—that use dairy terms on their labels.

Lawmakers have yet to set a hearing date for the bill. And even if it does hit the House and Senate floors, there's little likelihood it will gain traction. In recent years, at least two federal judges have tossed out previous lawsuits that alleged alternative milk was mislabeled. In fact, one judge all-but called the case an insult to consumers.

"A reasonable consumer would not assume that two distinct products have the same nutritional content," California Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in his 2015 decision against claims that Trader Joe's soy milk's label was misleading. "If the consumer cared about the nutritional content, she would consult the label."

And that's a sentiment the plant-based product producers agree with as they amp up to fight back on any regulation changes. Michele Simon, the executive director of Plant Based Foods Association, told The Washington Post that people who buy soy or almond milk do it precisely because they know it doesn't come from a cow. "Milk," she argues, is a function term, not a literal definition.

But just in case, PBFA has hired an attorney to make a case against the dairy bill. Two other plant-product agencies—the American Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Association of North America—have co-authored a letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, speaking out against the bill. And a separate citizens' petition against the dairy bill has more than 43,000 signatures. It's enough to make one think that soy milk labels are safe—for now.

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