The War on Almond Milk

July 27, 2018

A few years ago a small start-up company in California called JUST, Inc., formerly known as Hampton Creek, started selling a vegan brand of mayonnaise called “Just Mayo” in stores nationwide.

This start-up company was the picture of an American success story: a small business that developed a popular and innovative product, in this case an affordable eggless alternative to mayonnaise.

But “Just Mayo” was too successful for the likes of the egg industry. So much so that top executives from the industry conspired with a federal entity called the American Egg Board and USDA employees to coerce and threaten retailers into not carrying the “Just Mayo” brand.

And how did they do this? They accused JUST, Inc. of illegally using the term “mayonnaise” since their product did not contain any eggs.

What was their true crime? Their success. As the American Egg Board’s CEO had put it in an email to colleagues, Just Mayo posed a “crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.”

This is just one example of cronyist abuse of “standards of identity” established by the FDA.

The FDA established these labeling requirements to regulate what a food product must contain to be marketed under a certain name. While they were set in place with the intent of protecting consumer safety as part of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, these antiquated rules have failed to keep pace with modern innovations.

Instead, they have been used as a tool by the well-established food industries to suppress competition and limit new players from entering the market.

And the market for meat, dairy, and egg alternatives – such as plant-based products – has only grown in recent years. In fact, between 2015 and 2016 the total profit for sales in plant-based foods rose by 8 percent. Consumers are clear that they want these options available to them.

But the current labeling requirements on the books are poised to restrict many of these innovative products.

For example, milk is defined by the FDA as “lacteal secretion… obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” By this definition, almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk – among others – technically violate the legal standard.

And the list goes on… “almond butter,” “goat cheese,” and “gluten-free bread,” for example, could also be accused of being illegally labeled.

Not only are these labeling requirements outdated, but they are also unnecessary. There are already separate requirements for manufacturers to list all of a product’s ingredients on the nutrition facts panel – confirming the fact that consumers are not “deceived” by these labels.

The truth is that these labeling requirements play right into the hands of the large, cronyist food industries that want to place new, innovative products at a disadvantage. Because after becoming established and reaching success themselves, they aim to pull up the ladder behind them – preventing any of the small competitors from having a chance in a level playing field. Rather than playing fair and square, they stifle competition and rig the rules of the game in their favor.

That’s why I have introduced legislation that would protect “standard of identity” requirements from this kind of abuse.

This bill would prohibit “standards of identity” from being enforced against products simply because of their use of a common compound name – specifically where a word or phrase identifies an alternative plant or animal source.

Because the cronies should not have a stranglehold on food terms, or a monopoly on the market. It is only right that we let companies like JUST, Inc. – and the other small start-ups and innovators across the country – have a fair shot at the competition.