Producers, processors call for quick passage of imitation dairy, meat labeling

Farmers and food processors are calling for quick legislative action on bills to protect consumers from “misleading” labels on imitation products. 

“It’s critical that consumers understand exactly what they’re buying, and offering to their families,” said Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Executive Director John Umhoefer. “While these soy- and nut-based products may try to mimic milk, they cannot deliver the same nutritional benefits.”

Umhoefer, together with WCMA President Dave Buholzer of Klondike Cheese Company of Monroe and WCMA Past President Kim Heiman of Nasonville Dairy of Marshfield, delivered that message to the members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Tourism, in support of Senate Bills 81 and 83. 

The committee held a hearing yesterday on legislation that would change how the state defines milk, dairy and meat products. Under the bills, authored by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, foods like almond milk and plant-based hamburgers would no longer be able to market themselves as a kind of milk or meat. Products would have to specifically come from an animal in order to be marketed as meat, milk, cheese or dairy.

Lawmakers reintroduced the bills this year after similar legislation failed to come to the floor in both chambers before the session wrapped up.

A recent consumer study, sponsored in part by WCMA, showed that one-quarter of people believe real milk is present in plant-based foods that mimic cheese. One-third of those studied think plant-based cheese mimics contain protein, though some imitators have little to no protein. One-quarter think plant-based cheese mimics are lower in calories or fat, and have fewer additives, but neither perception is true.

The Dairy Business Association also pressed the state Senate to approve the legislation citing the same study findings.

“Parents who are deciding what to feed their families deserve transparency,” said DBA President Amy Penterman, a mom who farms in northwestern Wisconsin. “The variety of beverages and other foods being misrepresented as real dairy seems to grow by the day. Customers should have options, but misleading those customers about what’s in their food is wrong.”

A number of other states would have to follow suit for the measures to become law in Wisconsin, under federal interstate commerce rules. Some states have already done so. 

“The federal government’s failure to enforce existing standards of identity for milk and other dairy products has made it necessary for states like Wisconsin to act,” said Chad Zuleger, associate director of government affairs for DBA.

He said it also raises concerns about how well the government will be able to handle labeling surrounding plant-based products that imitate meat as well as lab-grown cultured tissue, adding that states taking action can protect both producers and consumers.

“Consumers deserve clear, truthful labels as they make choices in the grocery store,” Heiman added. “When you choose milk and cheese, you expect a delicious dairy product, not a nutritionally inferior plant product masquerading as dairy.”

-By Stephanie Hoff