John Fetterman Thinks You’re Too Dumb To Understand Vegan ‘Milk’ Isn’t Dairy

Last week, Sen. John Fetterman (D–Pa.) wrote in a viral tweet that “Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers are at the heart of our community and critical to our economy,” adding that he’s working to pass the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which would “protect our dairy farmers by prohibiting non-dairy products from using dairy names.”

However, many quickly pointed out how ridiculous the bill’s premise was. 

“John Fetterman apparently thinks consumers are morons,” responded Paul Sherman, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Everyone knows ‘almond milk’ is not a dairy product.” 

“Senator, that bill makes it illegal to market ‘coconut milk’ as ‘coconut milk,'” added Shoshana Weissmann, digital director of the R Street Institute, a libertarian think tank. “That’s moronic.”

The DAIRY PRIDE Act, which was reintroduced in March after a first attempt in 2021, would prevent plant-based products from using terms often associated with dairy in their branding. So, should the bill pass, phrases like “oat milk,” “soy yogurt,” and “plant-based cheese” will be off-limits, forcing manufacturers to resort to awkward phrases like “oat beverage” when labeling their products.

The bill was reintroduced in reaction to a February decision from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow manufacturers of most plant-based dairy alternatives to continue labeling their products as “milk.” The decision, according to the FDA’s draft guidance, was made because the agency found that consumers consistently understood that plant-based milks aren’t dairy products.

Unsurprisingly, dairy manufacturers were not so happy with the new rules—and neither were pro-dairy politicians. 

“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,” wrote the National Milk Producers Federation in a February statement. “We reject the agency’s circular logic that FDA’s past labeling enforcement inaction now justifies labeling such beverages ‘milk’ by designating a common and usual name.”

“For too long, plant-based products with completely different nutritional values have wrongly masqueraded as dairy,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R–Idaho) in a press release following the DAIRY PRIDE Act’s reintroduction. “This dishonest branding is misleading to consumers and a disservice to the dairy farmers who have committed their lives to making milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and more nutritious products.”

However, these concerns are overblown and disguise the real motivation behind calls to limit how plant-based products are labeled: a desire to limit economic competition for dairy farmers.

According to the Plant Based Foods Institute, an industry association, 40.6 percent of U.S. households reported buying plant-based milks in 2022, and 15 percent of all milk purchased in the U.S. is now plant-based. From 2019 to 2022, dollar sales of plant-based milk increased from $2.0 billion to $2.8 billion annually. In contrast, cow milk consumption has been decreasing for decades. 

Contrary to pro-dairy talking points, it simply isn’t true that consumers are particularly confused by plant-based milk labeling. According to a 2018 survey, 75 percent of respondents understood that soy milk and almond milk don’t contain cow’s milk, while only 9 percent said that the beverages contained dairy. 

In fact, “milk” has been used to describe plant-based alternatives for centuries. According to Smithsonian magazine, recipes calling for almond “milk” were popular in medieval cookbooks, where the beverage was often used as an alternative to cow’s milk during Lent. 

Further, concerns that using “milk” to describe plant-based dairy alternatives could confuse consumers about the beverages’ nutritional value are equally misplaced. While it’s true that most plant-based milks (with the exception of soy milk) have much less protein and calcium per serving than cow’s milk, this information is hardly hidden from consumers—it’s printed on every product’s nutritional label. 

Even if dairy farmers and their political allies have a cow about it, plant-based milk is here to stay, and dishonest regulatory schemes are unlikely to change that.