Butter Labeling Wars: Wisconsin Dairy Industry Takes On Plant-based “Butter”

Photo: Pexels

Photo: Pexels

Originally appeared in New Hope’s IdeaXchange, July 2019
By Steven Hoffman

Until recently, the U.S. dairy industry remained relatively quiet regarding the proliferation of plant-based products that use words such as “milk,” “yogurt” and “cheese. Now, lobbyists and policymakers for dairy producers in Wisconsin, the nation’s leading producer of butter made from cow’s milk and the state that calls itself “America’s Dairyland,” want to limit use of the word on plant-based products, such as the best-selling vegan “butter” sold by Miyoko’s Kitchen, reported Bloomberg News.  

This past spring, Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) instructed supermarkets to remove nondairy products that use the term “butter” on labels, based on complaints from dairy producers that these products don’t comply with the state’s definition of butter, which requires that butter be made from dairy-based milk or cream. After being singled out and pulled from several stores, Miyoko’s agreed to affix a sticker to the label that read “vegetable spread.”

Companies such as Miyoko’s are riding a wave of popularity for plant-based products, especially dairy alternatives, reports Fortune. Plant-based milk retail sales totaled $1.8 billion for the year ending May 25, 2019, a 6.5% increase, according to data shared from Nielsen. Cheese substitute sales totaled $117 million, showing 17.4% growth. Cashew butters were up to $12.6 million, representing an increase of 4.9%, Fortune reported.

Changing consumer preferences toward plant-based foods are often cited as a chief cause of dairy’s slow decline, however, vegan products using labels such as “milk” – or in this case, “butter” – are seen by the milk lobby as misleading consumers to unfairly steal market share.

An official at DATCP said the agency is not planning to enforce labeling laws on other dairy products, such as “milk,” however, it will follow the FDA’s lead in this regard. Regarding butter, however, “It’s been an important product.” Wisconsin products more than one third of all butter sold in the U.S., Fortune reported.

FDA, for its part, may seek to restrict use of such traditional dairy terms by plant-based food producers. As part of its Nutrition Innovation Strategy, FDA announced it is modernizing standards of identity, which “define through regulation certain characteristics, ingredients, and quality of specific foods,” said an agency statement from Scott Gottlieb, who served as FDA commissioner at the time of the strategy’s launch. However, a review commissioned by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) reported that 76% of people who commented to the FDA were in favor of allowing plant-based products to continue using dairy terminology. 

“The entire debate over the use of the term milk and other dairy terms on plant-based foods and beverages is a solution in search of a problem,” Good Karma Foods CEO Doug Radi told Food Navigator USA in January 2019. “Plant-based foods that can directly replace dairy-based products make use of the same terminology (e.g. milk, butter, cheese) because they serve the same purposes and are used in almost exactly the same way as their dairy counterparts (in cereal, a glass, smoothies, coffee, etc.) Consumers understand words in context,” he said. “Consumers think these words represent proper descriptors for the products and do not believe we are trying to pass off our products as a dairy product. In fact, we would not be successfully doing so, as consumers buying our products are looking for alternatives to dairy,” Radi added.