An international movement of dairy farmers and organisations is demanding the term “milk” should apply only to the drink that comes out of the udder of a cow, sheep or goat, and not from an almond nut or soya bean.
Demand for alternative “milks” is on the rise. Nielsen says its latest data shows the alternatives are growing at a rate of 7.6 per cent in dollar sales compared to last year, compared to fresh dairy milk at 4.5 per cent.
While sales of alternatives are still a small fraction of total fresh milk sales, dairy farmers are nervous about their rate of growth.
The latest salvo in the war between dairy and alternative producers is a product called Milkadamia, squeezed from macadamias and processed by United States retailer Walmart.
With a 17.6 per cent dollar share, almond milk is the most popular in New Zealand, and is growing the fastest in dollar terms (at 23.8 per cent dollar growth compared to last year).
The “alternative milk” category includes dairy as well and encompasses almond, soya, coconut, rice, oat, milk powder, processed cream products, processed milk products, and UHT. Altogether these products make up 24 per cent of total fresh milk and alternative milk drinks.
Farmers say they want to see New Zealand rework its labelling to ban the use of the term “milk” for such alternatives.
There is also growing pressure from the United States and the European Union to make sure that what is inside the package is what it says on the label.
The US National Milk Producers Federation is pushing the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make sure the word “milk” refers only to lactate from an animal, either a cow, sheep or goat.
Last year the European Court of Justice ruled plant-based foods could not be sold in the European Union using terms such as milk, butter and cheese,.
Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis said he had been to many meetings with government officials and at international dairy conferences where the issue had been discussed.
“We think the use of the term for alternatives is misleading and devalues the work dairy farmers do. It’s riding on the coat tails of all the hard work the industry does.”
Lewis said the labelling issue was not just related to dairy. Auckland company Sunfed Foods markets a product called Sunfed Chicken which contains no chicken, and has plans to launch meatless “beef” and “bacon” products.
He criticised some of the alternative milks for being made from products grown after clearing rainforests, or using genetically modified technology.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which oversees labelling, said it had not been asked to consider any changes to the Food Standards Code.
The code required that, unless prescribed, the name of the food must be sufficient to indicate the true nature of the food.
“For example if the name ‘milk’ is used in connection with the sale of a food, the food must be milk as defined in the Food Standards Code,” a spokeswoman said.
However if the product was clearly labelled as “soy” or “almond” milk, it signified the product was not a dairy milk so the milk standard would not be applied.
Danone, predominantly a dairy manufacturer, also produces soy milk. It believes consumers are savvy enough to know the difference between “real” milk and alternatives.
Food Safety Minister Damien O’Connor said it would be a big challenge to change the labelling.
“I can understand the concern and share their passion to protect the integrity of milk, but we’ve had alternative products like soy milk in the marketplace for a long time.”
“Ultimately we’ve got to brand our products as from New Zealand and from systems that deliver the nutrition consumers expect, backed by sound animal welfare, environmental and labour systems,” O’Connor said.
Foodstuffs spokeswoman Antoinette Laird said the popularity of the alternatives was a lifestyle choice, and regardless of what they were called, non-dairy “milks” were seeing good growth.
By: GERARD HUTCHING