At the end of April, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop producers of non-dairy food from using terms such as "milk," "cheese," "ice-cream," "sour cream," and "yogurt" on their product labels. The NMPF characterizes such labeling as a misappropriation of "traditional dairy terms" and contends that "[f]ood labels should clearly and accurately identify the true nature of the food to the consumer. These companies should not be permitted to represent their products as something they are not."
The FDA has issued regulations that support the NMPF's view of words like "milk" and "cheese" and that define such products as essentially dairy in nature. Furthermore, according to the NMPF petition, the FDA has sent warning letters to producers of dairy-free products accusing them of misbranding food by labeling it with words identified with animal ingredients.
The FDA, in other words, appears to agree with the NMPF's contention that producers of dairy-free products mislead the public by using such words as "milk" and "cheese" in labeling.
In this column, I will examine the underlying contention that dairy-free milks including Wildwood Soymilk, Almond Breeze Almondmilk or Whole Foods Ricemilk, nondairy cheeses such as Daiya vegan shreds and Follow Your Heart Cream Cheese, and non-dairy ice-creams like So Delicious and Purely Decadent are engaged in misleading the public about the nature of their products.
Accuracy in Labeling: Lacteal Secretions
In its petition to the FDA, the NMPF emphasizes the importance of accuracy in labeling. The petition states that "[t]hese products [the ones that use "dairy terminology" in various incarnations] should be relabeled to more accurately describe the nature of the food . . ." A consumer interested in purchasing cows' milk, cheese, sour cream, or yogurt, in other words, should be able to understand, when she reads the label and the ingredients on a food product, precisely what she is - and what she is not - purchasing. Words that falsely connote dairy products thus risk confusing the consumer, according to the NMPF.
Whatever one thinks about dairy products, we should all share the NMPF's expressed desire that consumers (of dairy and other packaged items) fully and accurately understand the nature of the products that they consume. Most people are busy with their lives and cannot afford to spend time divining the origin of the ingredients in their food. Accuracy in labeling protects and justifies the trust of consumers, who may not have occasion to think much about what it is that they are purchasing and consuming when they visit the local grocery.
Though one will not likely encounter this precise definition on a container of dairy milk, the NMPF's petition explains that "the term 'milk' refers to the lacteal secretion from a mammal." The federal regulation defining "milk" states more narrowly that "[m]ilk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." (Colostrum is the very early lacteal secretion that mammals produce for their newborn young; it has a different texture and appearance from milk).
Cows' milk, in other words, is the breast milk that a mother cow produces in her body when she gives birth to a baby calf. This is a familiar process, as human females - also mammals - produce milk when they give birth to baby humans. Unlike human babies who nurse with their mothers until their mothers are ready to wean them, however, the baby calf on a dairy farm is forcibly removed from his mother's side while he is still young enough to continue nursing, so that dairy farmers can allow the human population to drink and eat the mother's lacteal secretions. (Humans appear to be the only mammals who continue to drink breast milk into adulthood and who routinely feed, at any time in their lives, on the breast milk of a different animal.)
Consumers might rightly wonder what happens to the baby calf after he is taken from his mother. If he is a boy (and roughly half of a cow's babies are boys), he will be sold and slaughtered as veal. If she is a girl, then she will either become veal, like her brothers, or she will be raised to give birth to babies who are taken away from her, so that she too may be forced to provide "lacteal secretions" to satisfy the human population's demand for dairy products such as lacteal milk, lacteal cheese, lacteal yogurt, lacteal ice-cream, and lacteal sour-cream.
Once a farmer can no longer milk mother and daughter for the quantity of dairy that the populace demands, he considers these females "spent" and sends them to slaughter as well.
The wife of a former dairy farmer describes the cows' and their calves' experience as follows:
"I learned that dairy cows have to be bred every year in order to continue to produce milk, and how their calves are taken from them shortly after birth--they're lucky if they get colostrum from their mom, which is the first milk that is important for their survival. While some of the calves are kept as replacement heifers, most of them are sent to slaughter or the veal operations, which is a very short life, and not a happy life.... The verbalizations made by mother and baby as they bond are just one small aspect of their emotional lives that we humans tear apart. The mother calls for her baby for many days after they're separated. How can such a thing ever be called 'humane?'"
Dairy consumers ought to know these things when they purchase dairy milk and its derivatives, yet there is nothing on the labels that would give them a hint of it. This may be why some people who consider themselves "ethical vegetarians" still consume dairy products. It would be useful to have dairy items labeled to reflect the fate of their bovine producers.