Australian manufacturers of beverages made from soybean, almond, rice and other plant-based non-milk sources seem likely to bow to dairy sector pressure and drop the term “milk” from their labels.
A groundswell of northern hemisphere reaction against the word milk used to describe imitation dairy products now has local processors also thinking twice about the need for the term in Australian and New Zealand.
A European Union court decision recently banned words such as “milk”, “yoghurt” or “butter” being used on non-dairy product labels.
Dairyfarmers in Australia also want a ban on what they consider deceptive branding on products made from crops as diverse as cashews, coconuts and hemp.
“I think it's (removing the term `milk’) probably a trend we will see here,” Freedom Foods managing director Rory Macleod said.
“When you look at what’s happening overseas, you do find the word milk is fading from soy and almond products.”
He doubted changing the label would change a (non-dairy) product’s recognition factor or popularity with consumers.
Freedom Foods is a major processor of plant-derived products including organic soy, coconut and almond beverages under the Australia’s Own brand, rice and soybean lines under the Freedom label, and the Almond Breeze almond milk range.
The company’s “dairy alternative” products are currently boldly branded as milk, despite criticism from the dairy sector and nutrition advisors who note these sorts of products do not naturally contain many of the key beneficial nutrients found in real milk from cows or other lactating animals.
NSW-based dairy advocacy group Dairy Connect has led the charge against “fake milk” labelling, recently launching a Change.org online petition aimed at pushing food and consumer product regulators to follow the lead of northern hemisphere lawmakers.
The local body, representing farmers, processors and dairy product distributors, said real milk’s good name had been hijacked by processors of dairy alternative products.
Chief executive officer, Shaughn Morgan, noted there was no end to the range of imitations entering the market, with Pea Milk the newest non-dairy beverage brand in the US and claiming more protein and calcium than other alternative “milks”.
Apart from its nut-free, soy-free, lactose-free and gluten-free credentials, Pea Milk is promoted as better for the environment than almond milk because field pea crops require less water to grow.
Interestingly, milk substitute processors Lion (Vitasoy) and Freedom Foods are also a major player in the dairy sector.
Lion owns the Dairy Farmers milk brand and Freedom is a big a processor of ultra-high temperature (UHT) treated milk products packed for its own Australia’s Own label and other local and export brands.
Freedom’s Mr Macleod conceded removing the word from dairy substitute beverages would “avoid the cross-category issues” although no plans had been made by the company to do so.
“It certainly would not be hard to do,” he said.
“It is happening in North America – I’ve noticed it first hand myself only a few weeks ago.”
He noted the labelling issue and accusations of fake milk marketing had previously “popped up about 10 years ago”, but did not attract sustained discussion, however regulatory pressure in Europe and the US was encouraging some processors to alter their labelling.
In the US recent political support has built up to enact clear Food and Drug Administration laws defending milk from imitations, including non-dairy yoghurt and cheese products.
Similar laws already ban dairy alternatives being labelled as milk in Canada, protecting the word milk to describe "the lacteal secretion obtained from the mammary gland of a cow”.
An Australian delegation to the International Dairy Federation world summit in Belfast later this week is also aiming to tap ideas on how to champion milk’s credibility against new-age plant substitutes.
However, Mr Macleod said regardless of the dairy industry’s unease about the way plant-based products were labelled there was no doubting the increasing popularity of these beverages in supermarkets or among food service providers, restaurants and cafes.
“It’s particularly strong in the 21- to 31-year-old age group and most notable among female consumers,” he said.
“People may not move away from dairy completely, but they like the idea of being able to have soy or almond in their coffee or smoothies if they can.
“Everybody wants more choice these days, so we’re seeing a lot more consumers buying both milk and non-milk products.
“I don’t see dairy producers offended by what we sell – they understand there’s a lot more variety to choose from across the food and beverage market.”