Stroll through your local supermarket and it won’t be hard to see why some in the dairy industry are, well, having a cow. Milks and cheeses from soy, almonds, coconuts, cashews and even flaxseeds are decidedly in. Cow’s milk isn’t in danger of being put out to pasture, but consumption in the United States has been in a steady slide since the 1970s and the dairy aisle is getting crowded.

With interest in drinking milk from cows waning, especially in Western Europe and the US, and the popularity of plant-based milk rising, the Netherlands-based Rabobank in May advised dairy producers to diversify with investments in their alternative-dairy competitors. The major agribusiness lender noted: “Global retail sales growth for dairy alternatives has soared at a rate of 8 per cent annually over the last ten years.”

The dairy industry is fighting back against the plant-based competition. One weapon is a campaign to prevent Big Dairy’s rivals from using coveted terms such as “milk” and “cheese” on product packaging. Under intense industry lobbying, the [US] Food and Drug Administration may soon issue new guidance — the agency on September 28 issued a request for comments “on the labelling of plant-based products with names that include the names of dairy foods such as ‘milk’, ‘cultured milk’, ‘yoghurt’, and ‘cheese’”. Last year, Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act “to require enforcement against misbranded milk alternatives”.

Critics of employing the words “cheese” and “milk” to describe plant-based products would maintain they are simply defending the traditional understanding of what those terms mean. Tell that to Benjamin Franklin. In 1770, according to Smithsonian.com, Franklin sent to America from London a few dried beans that he said were used by the Chinese to make “a cheese”. The beans were almost certainly soy, the magazine said in March, and “cheese” was likely the translation of what a Spanish traveller to China, according to Franklin, had described seeing: “tau-fu”. (Francis Bacon was nearly a century and a half ahead of Franklin in describing non-dairy milk, writing in 1626 that “there be plants, that have a Milk in them when they are Cut”.)

By the mid-19th century, soya beans were being introduced for cultivation in the US, and in 1897, the term “soybean milk” appeared for the first time in a US government publication. Also, in the late 19th century, the physician and inventor, John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg), began experimenting with making vegetarian foods, including using nuts for meat substitutes. In the 1940s, the term “soy meats” began appearing in US food industry publications.

Still, America was slow to embrace plant-based meats and milk products. The 20th century was replete with hopeful introductions of alternatives that never quite caught on. In recent decades, though, food-production processes have steadily improved, turning out cow-free products that are ever more appealing to the American palate. Whether out of concern about health, climate change or animal welfare, people are finding manifold reasons to eat lower on the food chain.

This year, North Carolina moved to “prohibit the sale of plant-based products mislabelled as milk”. Missouri recently enacted a state law requiring that only “harvested production livestock or poultry” can be marketed as “meat”.

To hear these lawmakers tell it, American consumers must be awfully confused. Or dim. Do shoppers really need to be protected from the mistaken belief that almond cheese comes from cows or that a veggie burger involves ground beef?

The dairy industry’s hostility to plant-based foods has a long tradition. In a Depression-era protest in Wisconsin against margarine, which was sometimes made from coconut oil, one demonstrator held up a sign that said: “Don’t look for prosperity if you expect the American farmer to compete with the coconut cow”. The battle against margarine had been going on for decades: Rose Eveleth, writing for Slate in July, noted that in 1869, American dairy farmers sounded the alarm about “counterfeit butter”, as one Wisconsin congressman put it while proposing to tax margarine producers into oblivion. By 1900, 30 states had made it illegal to dye margarine yellow. Some stipulated that it be dyed pink.

As foolish as mandatory pink margarine sounds in 2018, similar ill-conceived efforts to thwart plant-based foods abound today by appealing to tradition. But you don’t have to be as smart as Ben Franklin to recognise that these efforts are in keeping with a rather different American tradition: Good old-fashioned protectionism.

— Washington Post

Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.