Got Legit Milk?

By Jason W. M. Ellsworth

First it was the Mayo Wars, and now we have the Milk Wars!

“If milk comes from a plant, can you still call it milk?” It’s the opening line of a New York Times article in which the dairy industry’s answer is an unequivocal no. The US dairy industry is pressuring congress and the F.D.A. to ban plant-based products such almondmilk or soymilk from using the label “milk.” For many of us, whether or not the carton says “milk” may seem arbitrary. However there is much to be lost, and learned, in this classification war. Examining the surrounding discourse reveals what is at stake for each side and how these types of delegitimizing tactics can have significant consequences in the real world.

So what exactly is “milk” and who decides? In the US, the decision rests largely with the FDA who currently states milk is “obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows”. The new definition proposed by lobbyists will now include milk from other hooved animals such as sheep and goats, yet exclude anything from plants.

In doing this, the dairy industry claims to have consumers’ best interest at heart. They are worried that when you sit down to drink your hemp based morning beverage you are going to confuse the product with cow’s milk. They declare that plant-based milk, yogurt, and cheese products that do not contain any form of dairy from hooved animals “misleads consumers into thinking that nondairy milk is nutritionally similar to cow’s milk.” Interestingly, not all milk in their newly constructed definition is always viewed as nutritionally similar. Some argue that sheep milk is far superior. So, is this really about proper nutritional classifications?

Court cases involving the classification of food are not new. As noted in The Star this is just “the latest dispute about what makes a food authentic, many of them stemming from developments in manufacturing practices and specialized diets.” In 2014, Mayonnaise giant Unilever, which produces the Hellmann’s brand, sued Just Mayo for its lack of eggs. Unilever argued that eggs are an essential ingredient for calling something Mayonnaise. Part of the controversy laid in the use of the term “mayo” rather than mayonnaise.

Russell McCutcheon left us with a few questions from a post at the time:

An image of the definition of mayonnaise

Unilever eventually dropped the suit, but held tight to their conviction, releasing their version of an eggless “mayo” calling it Hellmann’s Carefully Crafted Dressing & Sandwich Spread.

The dairy industry’s statements allude to a concern for consumers’ best interests, yet soy and other non-dairy milks have been selling on grocery store shelves for decades in North America. So why pick a fight now? “According to Nielsen, sales of plant-based milks have surged to $1.4 billion from $900 million in 2012.” When the US dairy industry states they are protecting the purity of their product, it is hard to see this as an altruistic measure to protect consumers from being misled. And why not reprimand other misappropriated labels? The dairy industry is not suing other industries for misuse of the term “butter.” And I hope it does not come to that, as I’m not ready to rename my lunch sandwich peanut “spread” and jam.

That the dairy industry looks to protect its bottom line should not be much of a surprise and is not lost in the New York Times article. But what I find of importance here is how these seemingly arbitrary classifications have an effect in the world. Mayo and milk are not necessarily transparent terms of pure objectivity and categorization. They are how people make them, especially since ingredients in products are not homogenous from company to company. These categories are continually shifting and serve a purpose. The dairy industry constructs a definition as one way to delegitimize other products and to hold onto market share.

This shift moves us from asking how one should define milk to examine the discourses surrounding the case. Or as Craig Martin puts it, analyzing how discourses “can be used to legitimate or manufacture consent to social order requires us to switch from thinking about what discourses mean and instead focus on how they are used or what they do” (2012, 94). In the case of the milk classification wars, one can see how legitimation can privilege particular peoples while maintaining both the social and economic order. The rhetorical acrobats the milk industry proposes are a flex of power to delegitimize parts of the industry and maintain economic dominance. For at the end of the day the dairy industry is not in the business of producing “milk,” they are in the business of accumulating capital.

Got legit milk?


Jason W. M. Ellsworth is a doctoral student in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department at Dalhousie University and is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Prince Edward Island in both the Religious Studies and Sociology & Anthropology Departments. His research interests include the anthropology of religion, Buddhism in North America, marketing & economy, the anthropology of food, and transnationalism.

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