Beth Briczinski has been keeping a list of all the things companies are turning into products labeled as a kind of milk. "There's soy and almond and rice," she says. "Hemp, pistachio, macadamia nut, sunflower."
Briczinski is highly annoyed by these products. She's vice president for dairy foods and nutrition at the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the original milk producers: dairy farmers.
These other "milk" products, she says, are confusing consumers. She recalls a recent conversation in which one of her friends, who is trained as a food scientist, thought a plant-based product can be called milk "because it has the same nutrients" as milk.
This is exactly what those companies want you to think, Briczinski says. It's why they label their products "milk" and place them in the dairy aisle at the supermarket. But the products are not the same at all. Some milk-like drinks contain very little protein or calcium.
This week, a group of 32 members of Congress, many of them from big milk-producing states, came to Briczinski's aid. They wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, calling on the FDA to order manufacturers of plant-based drinks to find some other name. Democratic Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a co-author of the letter, points out that the FDA already has a legal definition of milk, and "the FDA regulation defines milk as something that comes from a mammary gland. So we're asking the FDA basically to enforce its own regulation."
Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, responds to this with a question. "If you break open a coconut, what's inside? Coconut milk."
Updated at 10 a.m.: Several alert listeners wrote to inform us that what's found inside a coconut is coconut water, not coconut milk. Coconut milk is a product that's made from the meat of the coconut.
Chapman says the word "milk," in practice, has a very broad meaning. "It's just a liquid that is taken from a particular protein source — a coconut, a soy[bean], a cow, a goat, a whatever."
This week's letter is only the latest round in a long-running battle over the milk label. In 2000, the National Milk Producers Federation filed a formal complaint with the FDA, asking the agency to crack down on the labeling of plant-based drinks as "milk." Three years earlier, in 1997, the Soyfoods Association of America had asked the FDA to recognize that "soymilk" is the common and accepted name for a product derived from soybeans and water.
So far, the agency has declined to take a stand, and there's little sign that this week's letter from Capitol Hill will change things. An FDA spokesperson told The Salt in an email that the agency "plans to respond directly to the lawmakers on their letter."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Some members of Congress believe the term milk has spilled over into places where it doesn't belong. They want the government to crack down on food labels like soy milk, pistachio milk, hemp milk. The lawmakers argue that milk can only come from one source - cows. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When Beth Briczinski walks down the dairy aisle in a supermarket, she gets really annoyed to see all those drinks claiming to be a kind of milk.
BETH BRICZINSKI: Soy and almond and rice - hemp, pistachio, macadamia nut, sunflower.
CHARLES: Briczinski is vice president for dairy foods and nutrition at the National Milk Producers Federation. These are the original milk producers, dairy farmers. Those other so-called milks, she says, are confusing consumers. For instance, she says, I was talking about this with some friends.
BRICZINSKI: At one point, someone said, well, the reason that they're allowed to call it milk is because it has the same nutrients.
CHARLES: That's wrong, Briczinski says. But that's exactly what those companies want you to think when they use the word milk. This week, a group of 32 members of Congress, many from big milk-producing states, wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, calling on the FDA to step in and order manufacturers of plant-based drinks to find some other name because, as Congressman Peter Welch of Vermont points out, the FDA has a legal definition of milk.
PETER WELCH: There's a regulation. The FDA regulation defines milk very specifically as a product that comes from a mammary gland. So we're asking the FDA, basically, to enforce its own regulations.
CHARLES: To which Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, responds with a question.
NANCY CHAPMAN: If you break open a coconut, what's inside?
CHARLES: That's right, she says.
CHAPMAN: Coconut milk.
CHARLES: The way Chapman sees it, this word milk has a very broad meaning.
CHAPMAN: You know, it's just a liquid that is a liquid taken from a particular protein source, whether you're a coconut, a soy, a cow, a goat - whatever, whatever, whatever - a buffalo.
CHARLES: This battle over words actually has been going on for decades. At various times, both the dairy and the non-dairy milk industries have asked the FDA to settle the dispute. But the agency, so far, has declined to take a stand.
Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.