The rise and rise of plant-based “milk” lines in Australian supermarkets, ranging from well established soy drinks, to almond, rice, oats, chia and even hemp milk, has “real milk” producers cranky and wanting a truth in labelling crackdown.
The topic will feature in one of this week’s submissions to the federal government’s Senate enquiry hearing into the dairy industry in Brisbane.
The issue is gaining traction in America, too, where farmers want the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to enforce the official definition of milk.
Farmers are not just uneasy about existing plant-based products on the market.
They are also alert to new-age food manufacturers in Europe and the US actively developing “laboratory-made” milk, meat and egg products, billed as environmentally friendly substitutes to animal-based protein.
US manufacturer, Perfect Day, boasts its bio-engineered milk is just like cow’s milk, “crafted with real milk proteins, casein and whey, but made without the help of a single cow”.
Its manufacturing site uses half the energy and 98 per cent less water than conventional dairy farming and processing operations.
Australia’s Dairy Connect chief executive officer, Shaughn Morgan, argued vegetable-based liquids were clearly not real milk, but the normalisation of the word “milk” when referring to non-dairy lines could easily confuse consumers.
For a start, non-dairy products lacked the nutritional and health benefits delivered by fresh milk from dairy cows.
Fresh liquid milk was a premium quality, short shelf life food of immense nutritional value, particularly to children.
“We don’t believe plant-based milk alternatives have the same nutrient content as cows’ milk,” he said.
“If beverages like almond or rice extracts are a regular part of a young child’s diet other sources of protein and energy need to replace the protein and energy otherwise provided by milk.”
Business intelligence firm, IBISWorld, calculates soy and almond milk alone enjoyed almost 6pc sales growth in Australia in the five years to 2015 and will generate about $183 million a year in revenue by 2021-22 (up from $113m in 2010).
“While they were previously confined to health food stores, milk alternatives are increasingly a mainstay in supermarkets and cafes, with many coffee shops in urban centres offering milk options as diverse as rice or even quinoa milk,” noted IBISWorld research boss, Daniel Ruthven.
In the US plant-based products had about $1.9 billion ($US1.4b) in sales last year, having recorded 54pc sales growth in the past five years.
A bipartisan group of 32 US congressmen last month wrote to the FDA asking it to stop plant-based products being labelled as milk.
They noted the FDA’s own definition of milk required the product be “obtained by the complete milking of one or more cows”.
Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board senior vice president, Patrick Geoghegan, said vegetable-based “milks” were trying to trade on dairy’s good name.
“I think some plant-based beverages have certainly taken market share away from fresh fluid milk,” he said.
Dairy Connect also wants governments to recognise Food Standards Australia and New Zealand’s definition of milk as “a mammary secretion of animals”.
“We want labelling of products to truthfully reflect the definition of real milk,” Dairy Connect’s Mr Morgan said.
It will highlight the concerns at Tuesday’s Senate Economics Committee inquiry hearing.
“The committee has a wide brief with its inquiry into the Australian dairy industry so we look forward to providing information, such as enforcing appropriate labels for ‘milk’ as one step to take the industry forward,” said Dairy Connect farmers’ chairman, Graham Forbes.
Dairy Australia practising dietitian, Blake Robinson, said the peak industry body was also worried consumers could be growing unaware of the difference in nutritional value between milk and milk alternatives.
“It’s not a case of making an easy switch and getting the same dietary benefits,” he said.
“These products aren’t naturally occurring and don’t have the same vitamins and minerals or the protein quality of cows’ milk.
“They might be fortified with extra calcium, but invariably they lack the blend of A and B group vitamins, phosphorus and potassium which occurs naturally in real milk and makes it a important contributor to better health.”
National Health and Medical Research Foundation evidence suggested the complex nutritional package in cows’ milk cut risk from a host of chronic health problems, including heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure.
However, Mr Robinson said Australians appeared to be more loyal to real milk than shoppers in Europe or the US.
Data collected in the 2012 Australian Health Survey showed on any one day 68pc of Australians drank cows’ milk and only 3pc drank a plant extract alternative.
“Clearly the trend on supermarket shelves has continued moving towards a lot more alternatives, but overall Australian fresh milk consumption is staying stable.”