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Got milk? Depends what you call 'milk'

A lobby group for the Australian dairy industry is unhappy with the rise of plant-based milk products, claiming the use of the word 'milk' is confusing for customers. So who's in the right?

Just in case you think you’ve heard the grossest milk-related sentence, think again. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand defines the word milk as "the mammary secretion of milking animals". But other definitions include plant-based milks, with Webster’s saying it can also be ‘a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow's milk'. 

According to a lobby group for Australian farmers, Dairy Connect, there is a call for ‘truth in labelling crackdown’ on the way the word ‘milk’ is used by manufacturers of plant-based milk products, which can include soy, almond, cashew, coconut, rice and sesame. 

This reliance on an industry-only definition of the word makes it a curly decision for Food Standards New Zealand, however James Crow, co founder of Little Island Coconut Creamery, says avoiding consumer confusion should be paramount.

“If anything, the growing concerns around dairy farming’s connection with declining water quality, climate change and bobby cows makes the out-dated market definition of ‘milk’ a risky one to use. However, it works best for shoppers and they are who we’re there to serve, not any lobby group or competitors,” says Crow.

Dairy Connect has stated that soy milk and almond milk are among the top culprits of customer confusion. 

It’s easy to get protective over an industry that has faced a drop in sales already. In just the past two years, the National Business Review says New Zealand dairy revenue has plummeted down 29 percent from a high of 35 percent in 2016, due to overproduction of milk combined with rapidly declining demand. Compare that to almond milk, which has grown by 250 percent in the past five years in the US, with the dairy alternative milk category grossing $1 billion in sales. Almond milk alone brought in more than $894 million in sales in 2015 and the second largest, and fastest growing plant-based milk is coconut (Little Island Creamery was placed 27th at last year’s Deloitte’s Fast 50 with 305 percent growth). 

According to global lactose intolerant statistics, in New Zealand 33 percent of adults over the age of 20 consider themselves to be lactose intolerant. And more so recently there have been several websites dedicated to alerting people to the bad side of milk.

In September 2016, Fonterra said New Zealand milk collection dropped 2 percent while in Australia it was down 9 percent. Season to date figures indicate a 2.9 percent drop in milk production compared to last year, with a 4.9 percent decline in the North Island, and a 13 percent drop in Australia.

This story first appeared at The Register.