Dairy and soy milk side by side (copy)

Sen. Tammy Baldwin is pushing the Dairy Pride Act to force the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban labeling of non-dairy beverages as "milk." 

Recently, Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act of 2023. The bill would ban plant-based dairy products like oat milk, soy milk and almond milk from using the word "milk." Baldwin says these products "have gotten away with using dairy’s good name" and are confusing consumers. She frames her bill as taking "a stand for Wisconsin farmers." She's wrong.

Let's start with the obvious: No one is confused about what's in a bottle of almond milk, oat milk or soy milk. You can like or not like these products, but no one's being tricked for the same reason that no one thinks a jar of Skippy peanut "butter" is filled with churned milk fat: We aren't stupid.

I lead marketing at a company that makes eggs from plants (products not impacted by this legislation). We're in millions of households, including families dealing with egg allergies, consumers trying to eat more plant-based, and seniors addressing heart health challenges. Our consumers are not confused. They are buying our product because it is free of chicken eggs.

Consumers aren't confused about the nutritional content of milk either. There are clear differences. Cow's milk is delicious, high in protein and provides 18 of the 22 essential nutrients, but it also contains a lot of saturated fat, a key contributor to heart disease. Plant-based milks might not be as tasty and they vary in their nutrient content. But unlike cow's milk these varieties contain little to no saturated fat and are more sustainable. And 65% to 70% of the world’s population has some form of lactose intolerance, making cow's milk a challenge.

These are complicated trade-offs, and we can trust consumers to navigate them based on their personal health circumstances.

OK, but what about the dairy farmers? Baldwin is right that family farmers need help. But their struggle has nothing to do with oat milk latte drinking Californians, and everything to do with corporate concentration.

Wisconsin is producing an all-time high amount of milk, while it’s lost 85% of its dairy farms in the last 45 years. Nationally, a farmer gets just 3 cents of profit on every gallon of milk, and the average U.S. dairy managed to turn a profit just twice between 2000 and 2021.

Meanwhile, consolidated corporate dairy operations have expanded, and with it, their political influence. That's led to a reversal of thoughtful dairy policies that matched supply to demand. Instead, these corporate entities pushed for more and more supply, weeding out smaller players — the family farmers who used to dot every community in Wisconsin. The dairy cooperatives also consolidated. In 2022, just three cooperatives controlled 83% of all U.S. fluid milk.

Baldwin has usually been on the right side of these policy debates, which makes it all the more puzzling that she's resorting to this political theater. Consumers aren't confused by the milk they're drinking, and family farmers won't be saved by changing the name on the label.

With the farm bill up for debate this year, Baldwin should spend more time tackling the real cause of Wisconsin's dairy farm crisis: corporate concentration.

Madison resident Thomas Rossmeissl is head of marketing at Eat Just, a California-based food technology company. Previously, he was co-founder and board member of Family Farm Action, a non-profit devoted to economic justice for farmers, and a partner in a Democratic political consultancy.

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