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The dairy industry has long held legal sway, which they've needed to wield in recent years as demand for products made with cow's milk has been challenged by a growing interest in plant-based milk and dairy alternatives. The dairy industry has waged a legal fight to ban milk alternatives from labeling their products with terms like "milk" or "dairy."
While the power of certain industries like Big Pharma is well-known, not many are aware of the massive influence of the dairy industry, which receives tens of billions in government subsidies each year. And the industry has used that influence to convince lawmakers to try to restrict the terminology plant-based milk alternatives are allowed to brand themselves with.
One Virginia lawmaker even attempted to make using the term "milk" to refer to anything other than the milk from hooved animals illegal. The bill was vetoed by the state's governor, though it is not the only attempt of its kind initiated by supporters of Big Dairy. Various laws have begun to restrict non-dairy food labeling, with new proposed federal laws on the subject also having recently been introduced.
In 2018, Petaluma, California-based Miyoko's Kitchen was sued in New York state for allegedly "profiting" off its use of the term "butter" to sell its vegan, dairy-free butter alternative. Plaintiff Jasmine Brown elaborated in her complaint, stating that Miyoko's use of the word butter "basks in dairy's 'halo'" but lacks its nutritional content.
Miyoko's Kitchen argued that the lawsuit was unnecessary and that their products' labeling would not confuse consumers or make it difficult to determine which items contain actual dairy. This lawsuit later settled out of court, but Miyoko's went on to sue the California Department of Food and Agriculture for attempting to restrict its use of dairy terminology.
In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempted to appease the dairy industry by sending a cease-and-desist letter asking non-dairy companies to stop using dairy terminology to sell their products. In response, Miyoko's took the agency to court for First Amendment violations — and won.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held earlier this month that the creamery could continue to use the majority of banned phrases and marketing tactics that the FDA had cracked down on. Some in the dairy- and food-labeling industries saw the victory as a step toward fighting back against Big Dairy's alleged agency capture — essentially, having so much influence over the federal government that it is above the law.
Others, such as the dairy industry, are saddened by the victory but understand that the battle for food labeling is not yet over. Across the country, new state laws and regulations are being enacted, and it may take a whole host of lawsuits before each is put to the test and struck down — or upheld. Whatever the case, consumers may need to get a lot more skilled with reading food labels soon.