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Wis. lawmakers reintroduce bill preventing non-dairy products being labeled as milk

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration is weighing in on the long-running battle over whether plant-based alternatives to dairy milk can use the term milk. The FDA suggests milk can be used broadly. But in places like Wisconsin, where the number of dairy farms is in decline, farmers say the federal government is making life harder. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Producers of plant-based beverages have been trying to gain a bigger market share for years. In 2006, the company Silk even dressed an actor in a cow costume for its commercial, promoting what it calls soy milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I said, it's healthy. Listen. I get it. I'll drink it. OK?

QUIRMBACH: Sales of dairy milk still dominate the market, but there's an ever-growing list of plant extract beverages labeled as milk. And in grocery stores, almond milk, oat milk, even hemp milk are among them. Now the Food and Drug Administration says it aims to clear up any confusion over plant-based foods that are marketed and sold as alternatives to milk. Part of the agency's proposed guidance allows the continued use of the word milk. It says consumers generally understand that plant-based alternatives do not contain milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

QUIRMBACH: There are 250 black and white Holsteins that produce milk at the Double Dutch Dairy near Cedar Grove, Wis., about an hour north of Milwaukee. Owner Brody Stapel is also president of the board of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. He says calling plant-based beverages milk is bothersome.

BRODY STAPEL: You know, we're not at all advocating that people can't have soy milk. I mean, people can have choices, you know? But where we hesitate is when you call it milk. My wife is from Canada. In Canada in the dairy aisle, it's almond beverage. It's soy beverage. There is no almond milk. We know that there's people that can't have lactose, that are intolerant to dairy. But they need to call it what it is.

QUIRMBACH: But Tanner Johnson, who grows soybeans on his Wisconsin farm, says plant-based alternatives should continue to be labeled milk. He's on the boards of the Wisconsin and American Soybean Associations and points to another part of the FDA proposal, which recommends labels include voluntary nutrient statements.

TANNER JOHNSON: We're not trying to replace the dairy milk product. It's just our own unique product. And I think there's a lot of opportunity for consumer transparency and education. And a voluntary nutrient statement is a good thing.

QUIRMBACH: Many Wisconsin politicians, including Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, side with the state's 6,500 remaining dairy farmers.

TAMMY BALDWIN: Yeah. The Biden administration's FDA rule that allows nondairy products to use dairy names - in my mind, it's just wrong.

QUIRMBACH: Baldwin and a bipartisan group of a half-dozen other lawmakers have also reintroduced the Dairy Pride Act that would prevent nondairy products from being labeled with dairy terms. But Madeline Cohen of the nonprofit Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, is no fan of that legislation.

MADELINE COHEN: The Dairy Pride Act is really just an anti-competitive bill that's meant to protect the conventional dairy industry at the expense of innovative plant-based milk producers.

QUIRMBACH: If the Dairy Pride measure fails again, Wisconsin's Baldwin says this year's farm bill is another venue where lawmakers will make their case that milk comes from cows, not plants. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE SONG, "BREATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chuck Quirmbach is a Milwaukee-based reporter who covers developments and issues in Southeastern Wisconsin that are of statewide interest. He has numerous years of experience covering state government, elections, the environment, energy, racial diversity issues, clergy abuse claims and major baseball stadium doings. He enjoys covering all topics.