Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.

Cow-milking parlor

Cows being milked at Snudden Farms, host of the last year's Walworth County Farm Technology Days in Zenda.

Lynn Grooms/Agri-View

Maybe I’m not all that sharp first thing in the morning, but if the almond “milk” my wife buys were more accurately labeled, I probably would have never poured it on my Honey Bunches of Oats.

“Almond-infused filtered water” doesn’t sound like it would be good on cereal, no matter how many sliced bananas you add.

It was with labeling conundrums in mind that Wisconsin’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin last week introduced a bill that would provide fairer warning to people like me.

Known as the “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday,” or DAIRY PRIDE Act, it would require the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on companies that label their products as “milk,” “cheese,” “yogurt” or some other dairy product when the products contain no actual dairy.

The bill might sound like a sop to a powerful industry from a politician looking to curry its favor in a state proudly nicknamed “America’s Dairyland” — and it is. Fake dairy backers can also correctly note that anyone with half a brain knows that soy milk, for example, doesn’t come from a cow.

And yet Baldwin and her dairy backers have some legitimate complaints.

For one, definitions of dairy products do not come with a lot of wiggle room.

Federal regulations already define milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows,” and UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research director John Lucey notes that there are “‘Standards of Identity’ for yogurts and most cheeses, where they state that those products must be made from milk.”

Sure, Merriam-Webster provides secondary definitions of “milk” and “cheese” as “a liquid resembling milk in appearance” and “something resembling cheese in shape or consistency,” respectively, but those are just arbitrary nods to increasing product variety. There are no allowances in the definitions of “chicken” or “beef” for vegetarian “chicken” or “beef,” after all.

Second, just because the makers of fake dairy products list their ingredients and put photos of almonds or soybeans on their almond and soy “milks” doesn’t mean they aren’t misleadingly labeled.

I’m 95 percent sure almonds aren’t mammals with tiny udders that produce milk for baby almonds, and yet when I took that carton of almond milk out of the refrigerator for the first time, I did so because I was expecting it to have the taste and consistency of what it called itself: milk.

Expectations of dairy pleasure are the reason why makers of fake dairy use dairy words in their product names. Dairy sells. “Something resembling cheese in shape or consistency” doesn’t.

This is not to say consumers willfully ignore the many obvious signs that they are buying a fake dairy product, but neither can they ignore the delicious associations they make when they see the words “ice cream” or “cheese.”

If the makers of fake dairy want their products to trip similar kinds of neural triggers, they are welcome to make their products taste better and come up with their own words to describe them.

“Milk,” though, is taken.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ).

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