Milk producers such as Jerry Messer say they’ve had it with many food companies’ marketing practices, such as labeling foods in ways that disparage GMOs or using the term “milk” for plant-based beverages. 

So, producers have launched a series of initiatives against those companies – including one of their biggest customers, dairy processing giant Dean Foods. 

In the case of anti-GMO labeling, producers say they’re determined not to lose the ability to feed their cattle genetically engineered corn and soybeans or to use other common industry practices. 

“There’s no reason they (food companies) should be allowed to say theirs is better because they don’t have this or that,” said Messer, a North Dakota producer.  “I don’t like the labeling or misleading labeling that goes along with it.”

The dairy producers are fighting their labeling war on at least three fronts: 

‘Peel Back the Label.’ - The National Milk Producers Federation is sponsoring a new “Peel Back the Label” campaign that seeks to cajole and shame food companies into dropping, or not adopting, claims such as “No GMOs.” Leaders of the group have met with several of the companies to press their concerns.

Peel back the label 

Logo for NMPF's "Peel Back the Label" campaign

The campaign's website lists several “case studies” of companies that National Milk says are improperly disparaging biotechnology. Major chicken producers are criticized for claiming that their products have "no added hormones" that they aren't allowed to use anyway.

Stopping dairy ‘imitators.’ - National Milk also has intensified an effort that dates back to the 1990s to stop products such as soy milk and almond milk from being called “milk.” The FDA has refused so far to restrict the use of the term “milk,” but NMPF is hoping the Trump administration will change course. 

National Milk officials met this summer with Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and has requested a meeting with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. 

The group also is trying to use Congress to put pressure on FDA. A producer-backed bill called the DAIRY PRIDE Act would amend the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to say that only a product of a hooved animal can be sold as milk.  (The bill’s name stands for “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday.”)  

Plant-based products, which National Milk refers to as “dairy imitators,” continue to proliferate. One made from macadamia nuts, called ‘Milkadamia,” is marketed tongue-in-cheek as a “plant milk” produced from “free-range trees.” 

‘Undeniably Dairy.’ - The producers’ checkoff program, operated by Dairy Management Inc., has simultaneously launched a new promotional effort, using the slogan “Undeniably Dairy,” aimed in part at promoting the special nutritional benefits of milk and the environmental sustainability of milk production. The slogan itself is something of a swipe at milk’s competitors in the supermarket dairy case. 

“Consumers aren’t completely informed about where their food comes from,” Chris Policinski, CEO of the Land O’Lakes cooperative, said in an interview on the sidelines of the milk producers’ recent annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. “What we’re trying to do is educate consumers about where their food comes from and let the consumers make choices.” 

Dairy producers are far from alone in facing headwinds from changing diets and consumer demands. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance aims to protect conventional farming practices as well. But probably no other sector has been as aggressive in taking on its customers than milk producers.

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk, promised producers in Anaheim that the industry was determined to stop what it views as "marketing flim-flam." "Any use of fear to sell product is a race to the bottom. It's lazy marketing. It's marketing that hurts all of us who are producing food and fiber in America."

He told Agri-Pulse that dairy producers learned a lesson from the industry debacle with rBST, the biotech growth hormone that fluid milk producers were forced to stop amid a consumer backlash. 


Jim Mulhern, NMPF

“Twenty years ago we should have done what we’re doing today,” Mulhern said of the rBST issue. “One of the reasons were doing this on GM feed is because all of the benefits of the technology, the safety of the technology. It has improved the health and welfare of families and it has improved the sustainability of our farms.”

He said dairy producers also are better positioned to fight back against what they consider unfair marketing practices because dominance of farmer cooperatives enables milk producers to more easily act with a unified voice than other more-fragmented commodity sectors can.

The targets of the milk producers’ ire say the attacks are misplaced. 

One such company is the newly merged DanoneWave, which produces Dannon yogurt, Horizon organic milk and Silk soy and almond beverages. Prior to its acquisition of WhiteWave this year, Dannon angered milk producers by announcing in 2016 that it would transition away from milk produced with GMO feed.

We continue to be surprised to be on the receiving end of criticism about our providing choices that consumers are looking for and our efforts to continue to grow America’s enjoyment of dairy products, including yogurt,” said Michael Neuwirth, a spokesman for DanoneWave. 

He also dismissed National Milk’s concerns that the use of the term “milk” confuses consumers. “We believe consumers understand the difference between dairy milk and plant-based alternatives based on how clearly the options in the market are labeled,” he said. 

Dean Foods, meanwhile, believes it has been wrongly attacked on the “Peel Back the Label” website. Dean Foods’ “Tru Moo” milk is included in the website’s five case studies. The site praises Dean Foods for affirming the safety of GMO feed in company statements but accuses the company of running a television commercial that includes the slogan, “No GMOs. No Labels.” 

Dean Foods spokesman Reace Smith said there was no television commercial, only an online video that was posted briefly and removed. 

“We removed it because it’s not core to our messaging, and if NMPF had just called us about it when they became concerned, we would have considered removing it then,” he said.

He also criticized the Peel Back the Label site. “An expensive campaign, website and press release attempting to spread incorrect information is an oddly aggressive way to voice concern to a company that supports your farmers by buying and marketing your milk,” he said. 

Responding to Dean Foods, NMPF spokesman Chris Galen said producers were "seeing progress through examples like this one from Dean Foods, and there are some other encouraging signs that the campaign is having an impact."

The soy industry has been battling with milk producers for the better part of two decades over the use of “soymilk.” What would confuse consumers is ending the use of that term, said John Cox, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America.

“I understand NMPF’s desire to create an issue when there isn’t one – trade groups should be responsive to their members. But something larger than soymilk is at play here, there’s widespread interest in a range of dairy alternatives,” he said. 

“SANA doesn’t see any evidence of consumer confusion. Most people find it somewhat insulting to suggest that consumers don’t understand the difference between cow’s milk and non-dairy milks like soymilk and almond milk.”

SANA isn’t alone any more in battling over that issue either. 

A trade group called the Plant Based Foods Association recently signed up a new member, food industry heavyweight Campbell Soup Co., whose subsidiaries include carrot producer Bolthouse Farms. Members of the group were on Capitol Hill lobbying against the DAIRY PRIDE Act the same week the dairy producers were holding their annual meeting on the other side of the country.

Sales of plant-based food products exceeded $3.1 billion over the past year, nearly half of that from milk alternatives, the group says, citing Nielsen data. 

Also fighting milk producers is the Good Food Institute, founded by former PETA organizer Bruce Friedrich to promote development of plant-based alternatives to livestock products. The group has petitioned FDA to formally allow plant-based beverages to be called “milk.” 

FDA has given no indication of whether it’s going to get involved in that issue. In the past, the agency has said it is a low priority. National Milk’s argument is that plant-based beverages can’t meet FDA’s standard of identity for milk, which is that it is “lacteal secretion … obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”

At least one milk producer has decided to challenge its competitors head-on with its own labels.

Fairlife ultra-filtered milk is labeled with a nutrition comparison with “almond milk” and “soy milk.” A serving of Fairlife skim milk contains 13 grams of protein, 370 milligrams of calcium and six grams of sugar compared to one gram of protein, 451 milligrams of calcium and 15 grams of sugar in almond milk, according to the label. 

National Milk's Mulhern, who is waiting word on when he will get a meeting with the FDA's Gottlieb, insists producers aren’t going away this time. 

“I’m going to raise this issue every month if I have to until FDA takes action. What they’re doing is not enforcing these standards and it’s high time they do. … We’re not going to relent.”


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