Friday, March 29, 2019 - Alternatives to dairy-based milk are popping up everywhere these days, which is clearly not good news for dairy farmers. They’ve been suffering from declining sales since 2014, plus an over-supply of milk continues to drive down prices. Recent export tariffs have created additional grief, resulting in more dairy farms closing down each year.
The popularity of plant-based alternatives is also causing trouble for the dairy industry, as beverages made from soy, rice, almonds, oats and nuts appeal to consumers wanting more flavor and less cholesterol and fat in their diets. According to Mintel, U.S. non-dairy milk sales jumped 61% during the past five years, while dairy milk sales fell 15% from 2012 to 2017.
Still, traditional dairy isn’t giving up without a fight. The industry has been waging a battle on numerous fronts. It’s legally challenging the term “milk” when used by plant-based beverages and claiming that almond milk is nothing but “nut water” since there’s no cow involved. Whether it wins that argument will depend on whether the Food and Drug Administration decides to restrict use of the term “milk” on product labeling to animal-based products only.
Labeling changes might not make any difference to consumers at the retail end, plus it’s difficult to imagine products made with lab-made dairy proteins being called anything other than “milk.” However, this seems to be a new world where previous practices may no longer apply — particularly when new products never previously developed or imagined are hitting store shelves and dairy cases.
In some ways, the milk situation reflects the debate going on between the cattle industry and biotechnology firms regarding lab-grown meat. The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restrict the definitions of “beef” and “meat” to products made “from cattle born, raised and harvested in the traditional manner.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is focused on making sure consumers aren’t exposed to “fake meat and misleading labels on products that do not contain real beef.”
The respective arguments aren’t really parallel, however, since synthetic milk alternatives don’t contain ingredients sourced from animals, lab-grown meat production requires cells taken from live animals.
Millions in investment — and potential sales — are riding on how these policy debates play out. Lab-grown meat firms have also been drawing significant funds from major investors and big food companies.
One other aspect could prove particularly influential with consumers. High-tech protein startups have some significant sustainability factors on their side. They use less water and land, have fewer or no animal welfare concerns and can exercise more control over production and food safety issues. The dairy and cattle industries might find this difficult to counter.
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