It’s a crime to call plant-based milk “milk”?

The dairy ban (Amendment 171) in EU would stop plant-based dairy producers from using descriptive terms like “almond milk” or “contains no milk”, or using the usual milk bottle packaging, worrying consumers get “confused” when buying dairy-free options… but seriously??

We may soon see plant-based milk offering in these bottles instead of the usual milk cartons!

First and foremost, why do consumers go for nondairy plant-based alternatives? According to Bayless, Brown and Paige (2017), around 70% of the world’s population suffer from lactose intolerance. In Asia, this is more prevalent with around 90% of the population (Rutten, 2019), resulting in a strong demand for alternative to cow’s milk products. The other main motivators for adopting nondairy plant-based alternatives are amongst animal welfare and the lesser environmental impacts than fluid milk. (McCarthy et al, 2017). Almond milk, coconut milk and oat milk are the popular choices. For coffee lovers, coconut creamer is a great option too — foam well and taste great!

However, late last year, a EU law was passed (Amendment 171, aka the dairy ban) to prohibit the use of terms including “almond milk”, “contains no milk”, “vegan cheese”, etc. The rules could also prevent plant-based products from using packaging that looks like dairy, e.g. milk cartons. The dairy industry claims that Amendment 171 prevents consumer confusion. The use of dairy-related terminology on plant-based products could mislead consumers. However, this ban may actually censor essential information for consumers suffering from dairy allergies and intolerances. A study done by Gleckel (2020) indicates that consumers could be significantly more confused about the taste and uses of these plant-based products when the animal product-related words are omitted. Furthermore, consumers are looking for strong leadership on climate and environment, which means tearing down the barriers to sustainable eating, not building them higher. Consumers need more information, not less, to make more informed decisions. We know how to read labels and distinguish cow milk from a plan-based milk!

This initiative reminds me of how plastic recycling was initiated in the 1970s by the Plastic Lobby. Post WWII, oil and gas industry, producers of virgin plastics, promoted the use of plastic and it was very well received because of its durability and light in weight. However, public became increasingly concerned about about the massive amount of plastic wastes that are non-degradable. Oil and gas companies felt the threat and promoted the idea of recycling knowing that if the public thinks that recycling is working then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment. Exxon, Chevron, etc. spent tens of millions on advertisements to promote plastic as recyclable but we all know, the reality is that only <10% of plastics have been recycled in the past decades.

A lot of these industries have already had terms in place to protect them. And when they see the emergence of threat in any way, they would always try to flex their “muscles” and the public loses out. However, we’re in a different era now with more access to information so the public can do more monitoring in collective efforts — just like how the online petition is filed to scrap the dairy ban at the moment. We all need to keep an eye out to clear paths to better protect our environment and to live a more sustainable life.

Bayless, T. M., Brown, E., & Paige, D. M. (2017). Lactase Non-persistence and Lactose Intolerance. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11894-017-0558-9

Rutten, Ben. (2019). Why lactose-free is going to be massive in Asia. https://www.dsm.com/food-specialties/en_US/insights/dairy/why-lactose-free-is-going-to-be-massive-in-asia.html

McCarthy, K. S., Parker, M., Ameerally, A., Drake, S. L., & Drake, M. A. (2017). Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of fluid milk? Journal of Dairy Science, 100(8), 6125–6138. https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2016-12519

Gleckel, Jareb A. (2020). Are Consumers Really Confused by Plant-Based Food Labels? An Empirical Study. University of Louisville, Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, Journal of Animal and Environmental Law (forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3727710

Sullivan, Laura. (2020). Plastic Wars. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/transcript/

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