By Marilyn Hershey
I’ve learned first-hand that having a prominent name can lead people to make certain assumptions about you.
When I married into the Hershey family in 1984, some of my friends assumed I had struck the chocolate jackpot.
I had to explain that while Hershey is certainly a renowned and respected name in Pennsylvania, there are many Hersheys who have no ties to the descendants of Milton Hershey or his candy brand.
Such is the case for my husband, Duane. We both still have occasions where we explain that being a Hershey is not synonymous with being one of the Hershey family.
This confusion is doubly ironic for us, because of what we actually do: run a family dairy farm in Cochranville, where one of the biggest challenges we’re facing now is a different set of misplaced assumptions.
I’m referring to the comparison between the real milk we produce, and the growing list of dairy imitators that use the name “milk” for their beverages, without actually offering consumers the same valuable, consistent amount of nutrition found in our product.
Since the mid-20th century, the U.S. government has defined milk as the product of a cow, or similar dairy animal.
Other dairy foods, such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream, must also be derived from real dairy milk in order to use those terms on their labels. Many other foods and beverages have similar standards of identity.
But in the past generation, we’ve seen a variety of faux dairy foods, made from grains, nuts, seeds and even hemp, co-opting the tern milk to describe their products.
For too long, unfortunately, the FDA has not taken any steps to correct this situation. Now, members of Congress are getting involved by introduction legislation intended to force FDA’s hand.
The Dairy Pride Act would require FDA to follow a finite timetable in which to enforce its existing food labeling standards. This doesn’t restrict the ability of plant food makers from selling their products; it merely requires them to play by the existing rules defining milk as an animal product.
Why would a clever food marketer want to take pulverized seeds or plants, mix them into a liquid and call it milk?
The obvious reason is that imitation is a sincere form of flattery. After you’ve taken ground-up nuts, added whiteners, thickeners and sugars, you have to go to the next step of using an esteemed, respected name to make people want to buy your product.
Hence, you can find more than 20 different derivations of “milk” in stores, none of which comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of real milk. It’s a deliberate case of creating a mistaken identity.
On several occasions, I have met people who assume that because the word milk is on the label, the contents feature milk with flavoring from said plant or seed.
While it doesn’t’ bear a brand name like Hershey, real milk has a well-understood, affordable and consistent package of nine essential nutrients and vitamins-solidifying its reputation as a superfood with just a few ingredients.
I encourage you to read the labels. Imitation “milks,” with a wide range of ingredients, don’t offer that package, which is why they want to ride our coattails by using dairy-specific terms. It’s frustrating that in other nations, from Canada to Europe, the matter is handled far differently.
There are soy and almond drinks in other countries, but they are not labeled “almond milk” or “soy milk,” because regulators overseas take seriously the distinction between real and imitation milk. Our country is another matter.
I’m hoping lawmakers in Pennsylvania, and other states, will see the importance of defending food terminology as consumers become more concerned and aware of nutrition, food safety, and the desire to feed simple, natural stables to their families.
There’s no substitute for the valued role of real milk in our diets, and we need our food laws to reflect the reality that just brandishing a similar name doesn’t make you part of the same family.
Marilyn Hershey, a dairy farmer, writes from Lancaster County, Pa.