After years of dairy industry lobbying pushing the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on animal-free “milk” labels, the FDA issued draft guidance that recommends allowing “milk” to be used on plant-based product labels, along with a statement comparing the product’s nutritional merits with cow milk. In late April, the agency extended the guidance’s public comment period, which closed July 31.
Since 2008, the dairy industry has mounted fierce opposition against using terms like “milk,” “yogurt,” and “cheese” on non-animal products through marketing and government outreach, spending over $100 million lobbying the federal government. The industry ramped up lobbying spending since the FEC reopened its public comment period, spending $1.8 million in the second quarter of 2023, compared to$1.6 million the first three months of the year.
Proponents of plant-based products, such as the Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association, celebrated the guidance’s allowance of terms like milk but disagreed with the proposal’s recommendation that plant-based milk products should add labels to show nutritional differences from animal milk.
“The FDA’s draft guidance implies that the inherent nutritional content of plant-based milk products are somehow inferior to that of dairy milk products, despite the fact many of the nutrients boasted by animal-based milk are the result of fortification,” the Plant Based Foods Association said in a statement. “This suggestion is not only discriminatory towards the plant-based sector—no other products, including different brands of animal-based milk, are targeted by this guidance—but it also threatens to jeopardize growth of the innovative plant-based foods industry.”
The National Milk Producers Foundation, the second-biggest federal lobbying spender in the dairy industry in the first half of 2023, applauded the FDA’s nutrition suggestion but said its guidance “falls short of ending the decades-old problem of misleading plant-based labeling using dairy terminology.”
“Still, the decision to permit such beverages to continue inappropriately using dairy terminology violates FDA’s own standards of identity, which clearly define dairy terms as animal-based products,” the foundation’s statement reads.
Wood Milk ads take aim at plant-based milks and prompt legal complaints
Soon after the draft guidance was rolled out for public comment, the Milk Processor Education Program ran an advertising campaign mocking plant-based milk products.
In the ad, actress Aubrey Plaza, the fictitious “Wood Milk” company’s founder, touts a “slime that’s legal to sell” before concluding “only real milk is real.” The videos launched on April 20 and received millions of views across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
The campaign was created by the Milk Processor Education Program, or MilkPEP, which is run by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program. The Fluid Milk Promotion Act of 1990 established the “checkoff” program, which collects money from milk processors and “develops and finances generic advertising programs designed to maintain and expand markets.” The program is generally barred from using those funds “for the purpose of influencing any legislation or governmental action or policy” or “any advertising, including promotion, research, and information activities authorized to be carried out under the order, that may be false or misleading or disparaging to another agricultural commodity.”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes a plant-based diet, submitted a May 25 complaint to the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General claiming the ads violate federal statutes.
The complaint calls for the USDA Office of the Inspector General to investigate the ad campaign, claiming it is “false, misleading, and disparaging to a competing agricultural product.”
“There’s no question that they’re not there to criticize a fake product, that the product is a stand-in for all of these plant milk products that have become extremely popular,” Mark Kennedy, the vice president of legal affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told OpenSecrets.
“The USDA itself is supposed to approve any nutrition claim, any advertising program, every major contract. And for the most part, what you have instead is the USDA looking the other way and letting these industry front groups just run with the money they’ve collected via a federally mandated tax on producers. It’s kind of gross,” Kennedy said.
The Wood Milk ads were launched the same day the FDA announced it would extend the comment period on the draft guidance.
Nine days before the ads launched, the International Dairy Foods Association requested the extension. Groups supporting plant-based alternatives also requested the extension, including the Plant Based Foods Association, the Alliance for Plant-Based Inclusion and the Good Food Institute.
The FDA received almost 2,000 comments. The National Milk Producers Federation, a policy organization that represents dairy-marketing cooperatives, currently directs visitors from its website to tell the FDA that “fake milk needs proper labeling” by commenting on the draft recommendation and gives visitors a sample message that can be submitted to the FDA directly from the federation’s website.
As of July 31, about 13% of the 913 publicly available comments made to the FDA use the message provided by the National Milk Producers Foundation verbatim. The Dairy Farmers of America also ran a write-in campaign for comments in April, collecting at least 400 signatures from farmer-owners on a flier asking the FDA to “stop misleading labels.”
Legislation has been a nonstarter federally. Every two years since 2017, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) has tried to bring the battle to Congress by introducing the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act, or DAIRY PRIDE Act. It would require the FDA to enforce strict rules for products with labels using dairy terms.
In 2017 and 2018, dairy PACs spent more to support Baldwin’s 2018 reelection bid than PACs in any other industry. Seven PACs — including the National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association — contributed a total of $29,500. Baldwin will be on the ballot again in 2024 and her campaign received an additional $19,500 from Dairy industry PACs since the 2018 cycle, including $10,000 from the Associated Milk Producers.
In a statement to OpenSecrets, Baldwin’s office emphasized the importance of dairy in Wisconsin, highlighting the industry’s economic impact and employment within the state.
“Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland because our hardworking dairy farmers produce second-to-none products with the highest nutritional value,” Baldwin told OpenSecrets. “But, for too long, knock-off dairy products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name without meeting those standards. I am proud to go to bat for the thousands of Wisconsin dairy farms and lead legislation that bars these imitation products of lesser nutritional value from mislabeling their products.”
Baldwin’s news release announcing her reintroduction of the legislation called the FDA’s February draft guidance “anti-dairy” and “ill-advised.” Despite consistent lobbying from dairy organizations and bipartisan support, the bill has never made it out of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where it remains now in the 118th Congress.
Some state legislatures in states with strong dairy industries have attempted to regulate labels themselves as well. However, courts have usually sided with plant-based products like milk and dairy substitutes when these laws are challenged, often citing a lack of evidence that consumers are confused and that regulations could violate the First Amendment rights of the companies behind the products. Lawsuits have prompted states to walk back regulations and have led to court battles clarifying that labeling laws did not apply to products that don’t “intentionally misrepresent its products.”
Litigation challenging labeling restrictions on plant-based products is currently pending in Oklahoma.
Dairy companies ramp up lobbying after comment period, spending trumps plant-based advocacy
Land O’Lakes has been the dairy industry’s top lobbying spender since 2014, spending almost $2.7 million on federal lobbying in 2022. The industry leader increased its spending after April, spending $650,000 in the second quarter of 2023, an almost 57% increase in spending from the first quarter of the year. So far, the company’s 2023 efforts focus on the upcoming farm bill, trade policy and immigration reform.
While Land O’Lakes did not report lobbying on the DAIRY PRIDE Act — or food product labeling specifically — it is a member of the National Milk Producers Federation, which put itself on the frontlines of the labeling war. The federation is a “policy organization representing a majority of U.S. dairy-marketing cooperatives” and reported spending over $668,000 in the first half of 2023 and $1 million on federal lobbying in 2022, the second most in the industry that year.
In 2020, the federation reported receiving over $50 million in membership dues. The federation, along with member Dairy Farmers of America, has reported lobbying on the DAIRY PRIDE Act every year since 2017.
“Dairy farmers take great pride in their high-quality, nutritious dairy products and have spent many decades building consumer confidence in them,” the National Milk Producers Federation said in a statement to OpenSecrets. “Imitation products should not be allowed to unfairly capitalize on these associations, especially in ways that encourage inadequate nutrition and consumer confusion.”
“For this reason, we are continuing our work in Congress to pass the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would direct FDA to enforce its own rules and clarify that dairy terms are for true dairy products,” the federation said.
Another top lobbying spender in the dairy industry is the International Dairy Foods Association, which the Dairy Farmers of America and Land O’Lakes left this year over disagreements on dairy pricing regulation policy, according to POLITICO. The association hasn’t reported lobbying for the DAIRY PRIDE Act, but it has been more active in 2023 than years prior, spending $450,000 in the first half of 2023, compared with $310,000 and $360,000 during the same period in 2021 and 2022, respectively. A spokesperson told OpenSecrets that “IDFA’s lobbying focuses primarily on the upcoming Farm Bill.” Its lobbyists also reported lobbying on issues including supply chains, milk in schools and dairy pricing .
Some dairy industry organizations and companies also dedicate resources to influencing state policy. From 2017 to 2022, dairy industry spenders spent almost $6.9 million on lobbying across the 19 states where OpenSecrets tracks lobbying expenditures.
The Dairy Farmers of America has spent $558,000 on state-level lobbying just in the state of Colorado since 2017. Since 2021, Land O’Lakes’ lobbyists reported spending $270,000 on lobbying in Colorado, which is fresh territory for the company that focuses mostly on California and its home state of Minnesota.
The extensive lobbying on food product labeling reflects the dairy industry’s anxiety over the growing popularity of plant-based beverages and its impact on liquid milk consumption, which has been waning for decades. Still, overall U.S. milk production rose 13% from 2012 to 2021, while the number of licensed dairy herds plummeted 40% in the same period, from 49,331 to 29,858.
The dairy industry — which enjoys government subsidies through price floors and safety nets, like much of agribusiness — also predominantly hires lobbyists with experience working for federal agencies. Of the 64 lobbyists who have reported working for dairy organizations in 2023, 69% are “revolving door” lobbyists who used to work for the government.
Plant-based milk companies and pro-plant-based organizations lobby, too
Despite being no monetary match for the deep-pocketed dairy industry, some organizations spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying to influence government policy in support of plant-based products.
One of the largest lobbying spenders is Silk owner Groupe Danone, which sells both dairy and plant-based products. The company reported spending $790,000 on lobbying throughout 2022 and $440,000 in the first half of 2023 on various issues, including “FDA labeling of plant-based and dairy products.” The company left a comment in support of allowing plant-based products to use words like milk, while asking the FDA to reconsider parts of the draft guidance, including its recommendation that plant-based milk labels include a nutritional comparison to dairy milk.
Another big plant-milk producer, Blue Diamond Growers, has spent $230,000 on federal lobbying throughout 2022 and $60,000 in the first half of 2023, including on opposing the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which it has lobbied against since 2017. It also supported increased transparency for checkoff programs, like MilkPEP, as recently as 2021. Blue Diamond Growers also spent $137,000 on lobbying in California in 2022 and $800,000 since 2017.
Oat milk producer Oatly spent $60,000 in the first half of 2023 and $120,000 throughout 2022 on federal lobbying, mentioning “Issues related to naming conventions for plant-based foods” in its 2023 quarterly lobbying disclosures.
“We’ve also engaged on the issue of plant-based milk alternative naming and labeling, to make sure they benefit consumer understanding, not industry interests,” Sara Fletcher, Communications and Public Affairs Director of Oatly North America, told OpenSecrets. “Ultimately, our public affairs work in the US aims to level the playing field for plant-based foods in service of creating a better food system.”
The Alliance for Plant-Based Inclusion, “a coalition of large companies making plant-based foods” reported spending $280,000 on federal lobbying in 2022 and $150,000 in the first half of 2023, mentioning labeling issues in its reports.
The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit established in 2015, entered the federal lobbying world in 2017 to fight against the DAIRY PRIDE Act and to push for checkoff program reform. In the first quarter of 2023, the group reported spending $50,000 on lobbying on “Matters concerning alternative proteins,” including the DAIRY PRIDE Act. In the second quarter, the group doubled its lobbying expenditures to $100,000.
The group told OpenSecrets that the DAIRY PRIDE Act is anti-competitive legislation, giving special treatment to the dairy industry at the cost of the First Amendment rights of plant-based companies.
“Demand for plant-based milks is on the rise precisely because many consumers want dairy-free options, whether for health, religious, or ethical reasons,” said the group’s Senior Regulatory Attorney Madeline Cohen. “The DAIRY PRIDE Act will make it harder for these consumers to identify the products they want or need.”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the organization that filed the Wood Milk ads complaint, spent $108,000 in the first half of 2023, $151,000 on federal lobbying efforts in 2022 and $91,000 in New York in 2021, but its disclosures don’t mention product labeling.
The FDA draft guidance’s comment period ended July 31, and the agency will release a final version of its recommendations after reviewing the comments.