“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
It’s not often I get to quote Shakespeare in my agriculture-related writing (or, anything I write, frankly). But this iconic quote from his well-known Romeo and Juliet feels appropriate. Modern agriculture is going through something of a nomenclature civil war. Do the names we ascribe to things matter? Or is everything fair play?
U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg tackled this issue in a 2021 ruling. Miyoko’s Kitchen sued the California Department of Food & Agriculture after the department ruled the company’s plant-based butter couldn’t include the terms “butter,” “lactose-free,” and “cruelty-free” on its label. It also said the terms “hormone-free” and “revolutionizing dairy with plants” were misleading. The department found the “vegan butter” wasn’t a dairy product, and including those terms on the packaging created confusion for consumers.
Judge Seeborg came back with a mixed ruling. He decided “hormone-free” is false because all living things, including plants, have hormones. And the company’s faux butter isn’t revolutionizing the dairy industry; it isn’t a dairy product. But he held that the use of “lactose-free” and “cruelty-free” were perfectly fine, because both were true (however you define the latter).
And what about “butter?” He found California was trampling on Miyoko’s 1st Amendment rights to use the word.
The ruling isn’t out of line either. Almost a decade ago, other courts ruled in favor of dairy alternatives using traditional dairy words, like milk. More recently, companies have challenged state laws prohibiting the use of “meat” on plant-based alternatives. The results of those lawsuits were mixed.
But what’s clear is that no court reviewing the name game has handed a decisive victory in favor of traditional industries.
Despite a lack of victories, the proponents of clearer labeling have a decent argument. The FDA actually defines terms like milk and meat. For example, milk is defined as “the lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Under FDA regulations, producers are supposed to use these terms “to promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers.”
Is that what’s actually happening?
I don’t think too many consumers are confused that a liquid product extracted from almonds isn’t actually milk. Or that a Whopper made from soybeans is actually meat. According to Food Dive, the research bears that out. In fact, not only are consumers not confused, a vast majority see no problem with plant-based products that use traditional industry terms.
And given this latest ruling, I don’t think traditional animal industries will see much more success from the courts. Judge Seeborg’s ruling now takes its place among other precedent coming down in favor of alternative usage. Unless a case is appealed and decisively enforces the FDA’s definitions, I think this ship has sailed.
That’s good news for new plant-based startups that want to offer the latest innovations in plant-based animal products. But bad news for animal agriculture desperately trying to preserve the traditional nomenclature. Though I understand the emotion behind wanting these types of products to have a harder time, it’s the losing argument.
The confusion also reflects poorly on the FDA. We’re already living in a time where people doubt the reliability of experts. So do the FDA’s regulations and definitions mean anything? Or is it all just antiquated red tape? The agency indicated it would look at how terms are reviewed and updated. But we’ve yet to see any actual action on it. Surely giving clarity to the regulations promotes honesty and fair play?
In the meantime, maybe we can turn to Shakespeare for guidance: does “almond milk” taste the same if it’s labeled as “nut juice” or “faux milk?”
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.