Dairy wars: when a glass of milk is really a glass of m*lk

Following an EU court ruling that only animal products can bear the label ‘milk’, dairy farmers are calling for supermarket segregation from ‘frustrating’ plant- and nut-based rivals using the term

When is milk milk? Once upon a time, it was the white stuff that came from cows. Sure, there were skimmed, semi-skimmed and whole varieties, but they all came from the same place. Look down the milk aisle at most supermarkets today, however, and the choice of what to pour on your cornflakes is mind-boggling. It could be from a cow, a goat or a sheep; it could be lactose-free, organic or free-range; it might be made from almonds, oats, rice, coconuts, soya, hazelnuts, cashews, peanuts, hemp …

EU courts recently tried to restore a little order by reminding everyone that only liquid from animals could be called milk. As such, a product made from crushed nuts and water would not qualify. The Food Standards Agency has had rules to this effect in place in the UK since 2010. Since most plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk are nutritionally quite different from the real thing – they contain less protein, for example – dairy farmers argue that using the same name risks confusing consumers.

But, out in the real world, no one is paying much attention. While plant- and nut-based products don’t use the word “milk” on their packaging in the UK or Europe, some do on their websites. Certain companies have even decided to skirt the issue by calling them “mylk”, “m*lk” or “malk”. A spokesperson for the -Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the regulations restricting the use of the word milk to animal products applied to labelling and advertising, but that it was “up to local authorities and trading standards to enforce them”.

Supermarket milk aisles are even more confusing, as there will often be a mix of plant-, nut- and animal-based products side by side. If there is a separate section, it is commonly called “milk alternatives”, but price labels on the shelves often refer to the products as milk. Retailers also use the word milk in conjunction with plant-based alternatives across their websites, and buy up search terms such as “almond milk”.

“They’re slap bang in the middle of the milk aisle, but they often don’t even need to be refrigerated,” says Michael Oakes, dairy board chairman at the National Farmers Union. “It’s frustrating for farmers as this kind of association means people have stopped noticing what the difference is.”

Whether they have stopped noticing or just don’t care is open to debate. A few years ago, a poll conducted by the educational charity Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming) found that four in 10 young adults surveyed failed to realise that milk came from a dairy cow, with 7% thinking it came from wheat.

The Oxford English Dictionary already has two definitions for milk: “an opaque white fluid produced by female mammals” or “the white juice of certain plants”. Dairy farmers may feel that soya and almonds are stealing milk’s identity, but perhaps they need to accept that the cows have just lost their monopoly.


Tom Levitt

The GuardianTramp

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