Should almond milk call itself by that name? Issue hits home in dairy-rich Modesto

Alternatives to dairy milk such as Silk Almond, are pictured on Tuesday July 24, 2018 in Modesto, Calif.
Alternatives to dairy milk such as Silk Almond, are pictured on Tuesday July 24, 2018 in Modesto, Calif.

A top federal official has renewed the debate over whether almond milk and other dairy alternatives should be labeled that way.

The dairy industry in Modesto and elsewhere argues that genuine milk comes only from animals, not from plants such as almonds, soy or coconut.

The issue hits home in California, which leads the nation in dairy production and is the only state that grows almonds commercially.

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said at a Washington, D.C., conference last week that it might tighten its policy on nondairy milk labeling. Existing rules say milk comes only from secreting animals, but they have not been enforced much.

“And, you know, an almond doesn’t lactate, I will confess,” Gottlieb said at the event, hosted and reported by Politico. He expects the process to take close to a year.

The issue has played out in policy-making and litigation in recent years, as dairy farmers struggle to make a profit amid a drop in fluid milk demand.

And the debate stirred up the Modesto Bee’s Facebook page, where the question was posted Monday.

Almond milk is the top-selling dairy alternative, hitting about $890 million in U.S. sales as of 2015, Bloomberg reported. Cow milk remained well ahead at $17.8 billion, but its market has stagnated.

Every almond milk brand has a certain amount of crushed nuts and water, plus varying ingredients to enhance flavor, texture and nutrition.

Leading brands include Almond Breeze from Blue Diamond Growers, based in Sacramento, and Silk, made by a Denver-based company.

The Almond Alliance, an industry group based in Modesto, has been working to keep the broader use of “milk” on labels. Elaine Trevino, its president and CEO, said Monday that she has not seen details on Gottlieb’s plan but could know more after meeting with the EPA next week.

Limiting “milk” to animal products has support from Western United Dairymen, also based in Modesto. The group recognizes that some people cannot drink cow milk, but the plant-based options are not as “nutritionally dense,” CEO Anja Raudabaugh said.

“We are really supportive of consumer choice,” she said. “We just want people to know what they’re buying.”

Drinkers are not at all confused by plant-based milks, the Almond Alliance said last year in response to a federal bill that would ban the labeling. Nut milks could help people who are allergic to soy or dairy, or who are trying to limit calories, the group said.

So are California dairy farmers and almond growers no longer on speaking terms? Not quite. The industries still work together, notably with the sale of almond hulls as cattle feed.

And some dairy farmers have planted almonds on part of their land. The crop is more profitable than their milk, mainly because the labor costs are much lower than in dairy production.

Blue Diamond does not report detailed sales figures, but its 2017 annual report did note that its almond milk is now in about 20 percent of U.S. households. The company also launched an almond eggnog last year.