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.

Contributor

Tom Levitt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Calves and ‘cries of anguish’: why Joaquin Phoenix decried the dairy industry
The best actor Oscar winner gave a speech about humanity’s treatment of cows, shining a light on the harsher realities of milk production

Chas Newkey-Burden

10, Feb, 2020 @4:26 PM

Article image
Cutting out cows' milk? Here's how to keep up your iodine intake
The popularity of alternatives such as almond milk over cow’s correlates with increasingly low levels of the mineral in women – which can have serious health repercussions

Ann Robinson

01, Oct, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
How to eat out if you're vegan
Which are the best cuisines for vegans? Our chefs and writers’ tips on what to order, what to avoid and what to ask. Plus, the best vegan-friendly restaurants around the country and where to eat on the high street

Tom Norrington-Davies

24, May, 2016 @9:32 AM

Article image
Colleagues tease you – then steal your plant milk: the problems vegans face at work
The Vegan Society is recommending separate fridges and colour-coded cutlery. But what else do vegans struggle with in the office?

Sirin Kale

19, Feb, 2020 @1:58 PM

Article image
I’ve been trying milk substitutes in my tea – it’s a stomach-churning experience | Emma Beddington
Pea milk, oat milk, soya milk … they all claim to be the ethical holy grail for tea-drinkers. But did any of them work for Guardian columnist Emma Beddington?

Emma Beddington

15, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Meat: A Threat to Our Planet? review – guaranteed to put you off your chicken nuggets
Liz Bonnin’s investigation of the environmental mayhem caused by mass carnivory was meaty, disquieting viewing

Lucy Mangan

25, Nov, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
More fast-food chains are offering plant-based food – but should vegans be celebrating?
Burger King and KFC now sell non-meat options – but many vegans remain suspicious of big chains

Chas Newkey-Burden

07, Jan, 2020 @4:03 PM

Article image
‘I feel less stuffed after dinners – and less guilty’: why I stopped eating meat
My journey towards vegetarianism started 30 years ago for practical reasons, but the more I eschew animal products the better I feel about everything

Michele Hanson

01, Jan, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
There’s one thing that really puts me off veganism: Peta | Arwa Mahdawi
I’m a would-be vegan and longtime vegetarian, but the animal rights campaigners’ vegetable genitalia stunt turns my guts

Arwa Mahdawi

20, Jan, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
How do I know we have reached peak milk? Almond is being ditched for dairy | Arwa Mahdawi
The milk market is fiercely competitive. Soy, coconut, hemp and potato varieties vie for a piece of the action – and you can’t count out whole milk either, writes Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

03, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM