Did you know that only two beverages, water and milk, were allowed during the recent impeachment trial at the Senate? Iselin Gambert would be unsurprised by the sight of senators gulping down glasses of milk while considering whether the President should be convicted of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Indeed, her fascinating article, Got Mylk?: The Disruptive Possibilities of Plant Milk, tells you everything you always wanted to know about the social and legal meaning of milk in the United States and the European Union, brilliantly dissecting the ongoing battle over the use of the word “milk.”
Plant milk has rapidly grown in popularity among consumers in recent years while cow’s milk sales have languished. Yet, in both jurisdictions, the word milk is narrowly defined as the mammary secretion of an animal. In principle, it cannot be used to label oat, rice, soy, and other plant-based drinks. As Gambert notes, “[d]espite the fact that plant milk has been called ‘milk’ for thousands of years by cultures across the globe, dairy milk advocates have been waging a war against plant milk for the last several decades, fighting legal, legislative, regulatory, linguistic, and cultural battles over not only the very word ‘milk’ but also over the cultural space it occupies.” In 2017, Wisconsin senator Tammy Baldwin introduced the Dairy Pride Act, which would update the U.S. Code’s section on “misbranded food” to prohibit plant-based products from using terms such as “milk,” “yogurt,” or “cheese” on their labels. The same year, the European Court of Justice ruled that plant-based products are prohibited from using the word “milk” in their labels or marketing.
While this transnational convergence may appear to be a futile linguistic fad, Gambert emphasizes that American and European law share a long history of supporting the dairy industry in a way that is connected to the “exploitation and oppression—of women, people of color, and nonhuman animals.” She points out that, in both regions, animal milk has long been used a tool for patriarchy to exploit and discipline the female bodies of cows and women. She emphasizes that milk is an intense site of racial oppression—the majority of the world’s population is unable to digest cow’s milk and yet it is ubiquitous, highly subsidized, and heralded as nature’s perfect food. Whites of northern European descent are the most likely to have the ability to digest milk, explaining, in part, why milk-drinking is connected to “a particular form of institutionalized white dominance.” Cows’ milk has become a symbol of our current political moment—both in the United States and in Europe, it is the drink of choice for the alt-right in virtue of its association with white supremacy.
Gambert offers an ingenious solution to the linguistic dispute haunting legal and social debates. Is the word “milk” with an “i” worth fighting for, she asks. A single letter could be the answer—plant milk producers and advocates should simply replace milk with “mylk” with a “y.” A “whimsical” and “creative” word like mylk would assuage dairy producers’ concern that some consumers are confused by the label “milk,” while advancing the disruptive potential of plant foods by avoiding milk’s sinister associations. While she notes that this “verbal activism” cannot by itself solve the broad underlying political and social issues, which would require questioning American and European food practices in relation to gender, race, and species inequalities, embracing “mylk” may present “an opportunity to showcase to consumers a more intentional and empowered choice.”
What about meat, you may ask. Over the last year or so, haven’t we witnessed a similar battle over what can be called meat? Much like milk, meat labeling has become a central site of social, political, and legal contestation, opposing the livestock industry to animal rights and plant food advocates. In response to the rise of plant-based meats (and the impending possibility that cultured meat may enter the mainstream soon), about half of the American states have either enacted, or are considering, legislation restricting the word “meat” to the flesh of animals, sometimes backed by criminal sanctions. Similarly, the European Union and some of its member states have moved to ban the use of the word meat to designate plant-based foods. Would a single letter make a difference here too? Should plant food advocates embrace “meyt” to dissociate themselves from the hyper-masculinized and speciesist tropes invoked by the champions of “real meat?” I look forward to reading what Gambert has to say about these developments in future work.
Editor’s note: For a previous review of this article see Ruthann Robson, Equality at Breakfast: Confronting the Patriarchal Whiteness of “Dairy Pride”, JOTWELL (June 11, 2019).