Why do animal products such as beef and dairy, which require vastly more resources to raise and process, cost less than smaller-carbon-footprint plant-based products? One reason is because government policy is usually stacked in their favor. Historically, the beef, poultry, pork and dairy industries have been particularly active in swaying federal policy for their economic interests.
It’s no accident, for instance, that the infographic for national eating guidelines, MyPlate, features a serving of dairy. The meat industry benefited, too. When MyPlate replaced the food pyramid in 2011, New York University professor and food politics expert Marion Nestle said the MyPlate section distinguishing “protein” was odd, as protein is a nutrient, not a food. “USDA used to call the group ‘meat’ even though it contained beans, poultry and fish,” she wrote on her blog Food Politics. “The meat industry ought to be happy about ‘protein.’ Meat producers have spent years trying to convince Americans to equate meat with protein.”
What Nestle is getting at is evidence of a systemic barrage of Washington, D.C., lobbyists promoting policies that benefit the wealthy dairy and meat industries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ website Open Secrets, in 2016 alone the meat processing and products industry spent more than $4.5 million in lobbying dollars; over the same time period the dairy industry spent nearly $6.5 million.
To be clear, lobbying isn’t necessarily bad. It is OK to inform legislators about your industry’s interests—Simon’s Plant Based Foods Association recently hired a lobbyist to promote the economic development of the plant-based foods industry (more on this in a bit). But it leaves an unsavory aftertaste when certain powerful industries like meat and dairy significantly influence official health guidelines for their own benefit.
Time for a change in policy
Although brand innovations such as Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger solve the convenience and taste factor, retooled policies must reduce prices to get plant-based products in the hands of more people.
Simon, for example, is expending ample energy fighting a piece of proposed legislation colloquially known as the Dairy Pride Act. Introduced by Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, the act would prohibit plant-based milk, cheese and yogurt alternatives from using any of these terms on their product packaging.
“Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy’s good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced,” Baldwin said in a statement. “Mislabeling of plant-based products as ‘milk’ hurts our dairy farmers.” Supporters of the Dairy Pride Act argue that using the terms milk, cheese or yogurt on a product such as almond milk or flax milk deceives people into believing the nutrition of plant-based milk is equivalent to cow’s milk, and in some cases, misleads shoppers about what they are buying.
Organizations like the National Milk Producers Federation laud Baldwin’s Dairy Pride Act because they say it would uphold the integrity of cow’s milk and boost dairy sales by building a larger market. But supporters don’t seem to understand that shoppers are glomming onto plant-based milks not because they actually wanted cow’s milk, got confused and erroneously bought almond milk; it’s because these products are delicious, don’t require animals for production, can make people feel healthier and are better for the environment. (And don’t even start with the almonds-use-too-much-water argument. Compared with raising dairy cows and all of the grain required to feed them, almond milk is a more sustainable choice.)
“The dairy industry doesn’t own the words ‘milk,’ ‘yogurt’ and ‘cheese,’” says Simon, who adds that—should the Dairy Pride Act pass—it would require plant-based milk companies to define their products along the lines of “almond beverage” or “hemp juice”—monikers that would undoubtedly cause great confusion.
At 9 percent sales growth per year, plant-based milk is clearly cannibalizing dairy, whose sales plummeted 7 percent in 2015. It’s worth pointing out, however, that U.S. dairy milk sales were $17.8 billion, while plant-based milk sales were $1.9 billion that year. The scale is still tipped in dairy milk’s favor, and laws like the proposed Dairy Pride Act could hinder consumption of plant-based products. But at this growth rate, it’s feasible that one day plant-based milk sales could surpass those of cow’s milk.
Recognizing this potential, at least one longtime dairy, Elmhurst, has shifted business tactics. After more than 90 years of being in the dairy business, Elmhurst shuttered the dairy and now produces nut milks. Made with just water, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts or cashews), cane sugar, salt and natural flavors, Elmhurst represents how a legacy brand in a dwindling market can remain relevant and profitable to modern consumers. “As someone who was a part of the dairy industry for so many years, my views on the [Dairy Pride] Act are complicated,” says Elmhurst CEO Henry Schwartz, now in his 80s. “I am proud of how we’ve transitioned to plant-based and pioneered a more wholesome and nutritional nut milk. Transparency is very important to us, and we are very clear about labeling our products as nut-based.”