To force the issue, the dairy industry helped draft new legislation—the Dairy Pride Act—that has gotten bipartisan support from a handful of congressional lawmakers hailing from dairy-producing states, including Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota. The law, if eventually passed, would require that non-dairy products made from nuts, seeds, plants, and algae no longer be labeled with dairy terms such as milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Even if the industry manages the herculean task of pushing that bill through Congress, it will likely do very little to solve its more pressing existential crisis, which is figuring out a way to get people to drink more milk. Per-capita consumption of fluid milk in the US has dropped by more than 37% since the 1970s.

Some question whether conventional milk companies are wasting their time and resources focusing their attention on fighting plant-based milk.

“Their house is on fire and they’re trying to clear the smoke instead of put out the flames,” says Nicki Briggs, a consultant to several food tech companies, including Perfect Day, which is developing a cow-free milk.

Now that the petition is submitted, the FDA has about four months to pull together a response. In the meantime, the plant-based companies are going to be working to shore up support within their industry and beyond, trying to get the issue as much attention as possible in hopes the FDA will notice and feel additional pressure to respond.

The Trump factor

The US president may be a fan of junk food (paywall) and burgers, but Donald Trump’s politics may actually align with plant-based interests. In late January, Trump signed an executive order mandating that for every new regulation created, two must be revoked. Proponents of plant-based companies say they see this as an opportunity.

“I’m not going to reveal all of the the strategic considerations behind it, but if this administration is serious about decreasing regulatory burdens on companies, this would be a pretty big one,” Barrella said, noting that current regulations make it harder for small plant-based companies to establish themselves.

And even if the American executive branch doesn’t side with plant-based arguments, people in that industry are feeling confident that battling the issue in the courts system would likely lead to an outcome they’d like.

Trump has inherited more than 100 vacancies (paywall) across the judiciary—two times the number former president Barack Obama inherited—and is expected to nominate more conservative judges to those positions. In doing so, it would increase the likelihood that the courts would uphold issues of commercial speech, a ruling conservatives judges tend to favor, including Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court—an outcome that would surely spill a lot of conventional milk.

Companies have long bickered about how their businesses are regulated, but this food fight is distinctive because it challenges political norms—forcing progressives and traditionalists alike to challenge their world views. On one hand, the people who eat and make plant-based foods are often lumped into a brand of hipster, metropolitan liberalism derided by so-called “red meat” conservatives. But in this case, it’s the environmentally conscious bunch seeking less regulatory red tape and more freedom of (commercial) speech. It’s a reminder that, of all the partisanship raging through American discourse, debates over food continue to walk a blurred line.

“Consumer preferences are changing and consumers are really in the driver’s seat,” says Briggs. “Whether it’s dairy or [older] conventions in Big Food, it’s happening. The issue is much larger than dairy.”

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