ALLENTON, Wis. — The dairy industry has a lot of competition nowadays. A surge in non-dairy alternatives to cow's milk is keeping dairy farmers on their toes.
"There's a lot of alternate products available for people on the food market, so there's a lot of innovation with dairy products to try and increase our consumption of what we produce here on the farm," said Karen Hughes, the herd manager at Sunset Farms in Allenton, Wisconsin.
The farm has been in her family since 1857. Today, she worries about misconceptions the industry faces with more non-mammal produced milks taking on the market.
"When people call almond milk, milk. It's not really a milk. It doesn't come from a mammal. They have to do a lot of processing to it to get it into a liquid, drinkable form and our dairy milk is already natural," said Hughes.
Over the past few years, non-dairy milks made from almonds, soybeans and oats have gained significant popularity.
The "dairy alternatives" industry is expected to grow to more than $37 billion by the end of 2025, according to Global Market Insights. If we look back to 2019, the industry grew 15% to more than $2 billion, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, Hughes says demand for cow's milk has remained flat, and even dipped a little when restaurants closed due to the pandemic in 2020.
Farmers like Hughes believe calling dairy alternative drinks "milk" is misleading.
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin agrees. She recently introduced the "Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk and cheese to promote regular intake of Dairy Everyday Act" or "DAIRY PRIDE ACT."
The bill would require the FDA to issue nationwide guidance on what can be labeled as milk.
In a statement to TMJ4 News, Baldwin said in part, "Imitation products have gotten away with using dairy's good name for their own benefit, which is against the law and must be enforced. Mislabeling of plant-based products as milk hurts our dairy farmers."
Karen Hughes appreciates the bill.
"People know milk as a wholesome product, and when other products are using our names, I think it's just misleading to consumers. And I want them to be able to drink and be able to pick and provide for their families a nutritious product," she said.
Bridgett Wilder, a dietitian from Milwaukee, says it's up to the consumer to be aware of what's in the products.
"We live in a climate where people have the right to make choices," she said.
Wilder says restrictive or religious diets, allergies and intolerance are just a few reasons why dairy imitation products or "dairy alternatives" should stick around. She says you just have to understand what's on the nutrition label.
She says to focus on health outcomes when choosing a product. Almond milk might have fewer carbs than cow's milk. But cow's milk might have more protein, vitamins and calcium.
Back at Sunset Farms, Karen Hughes agrees that dairy alternatives are good to have around, but might not be the best "alternative" to cow's milk in many cases.
"They're good products, but I don't know that I consider them an alternative to the nutritious side to dairy products."
View Senator Baldwin's proposed legislation below: