Milk checkoff’s ‘Wood Milk’ campaign featuring Aubrey Plaza violates federal laws, health group says


Dive Brief:

  • The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint with the USDA’s inspector general saying the campaign by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program — known as MilkPEP —for the fake product “wood milk” violated laws forbidding negative product depictions and prohibiting advertising to influence policy.
  • Because MilkPEP is the promotions arm funded by the USDA’s checkoff program, the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service is tasked with approving its campaigns. The Physicians Committee says the campaign is unlawful and seeks its immediate retraction, as well as an investigation into how it was approved in the first place.
  • The campaign launched during the public comment period on the FDA’s draft guidance on plant-based milk labeling. The comment period is open until July 31.

Dive Insight:

The dairy industry has never been shy about its feelings for plant-based milk, but the Wood Milk campaign, which launched on April 20, articulated it in a bold, new way.

The campaign depicts a fictional company started by actress Aubrey Plaza in which trees are turned into milk. At the end of a video of Plaza talking about Wood Milk while in a forest, she says, “Is Wood Milk real? Absolutely not. Only real milk is real.” 

In its complaint, the Physicians Committee says this campaign was designed to elicit backlash against plant-based milk. The campaign features the white mustache image from the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign, which was initially created by the California Milk Processor Board.

“Using a fictitious product named ‘Wood Milk’ as a stand-in for plant-based milks, the USDA-approved advertisements deride plant-based milks as a ‘fake’ ‘slime’ possessing ‘zero nutritional value,’” the complaint states.

The campaign would be provocative regardless of who sponsored it, but because it came from the fluid milk checkoff, it’s subject to a whole other level of scrutiny. The program, one of many generic promotional programs for agricultural products administered by the USDA, is meant to expand markets for milk products in the U.S. The program gets its funding from assessments on milk processed and marketed for consumers. 

With the checkoff administered by the USDA, specific rules need to be followed in its marketing campaigns. The complaint says “Wood Milk” breaks two of these. It says the campaign is disparaging to plant-based milks — which are represented by Wood Milk. The campaign states Wood Milk is not “real milk.” It is “fake” and has “zero nutritional value.”

Meanwhile, plant-based milks — including those made from soy, oats and almonds — have been labeled “milk” for years and the FDA’s draft guidance would allow them to keep that name.

While the FDA has proposed that plant-based milks should address nutritional differences from cow milk on their labels, the products do have nutritional value. The complaint points out that the USDA recognizes soy milk and almond milk as components of a healthy diet. 

The complaint also says this campaign’s timing was meant to influence comments on the FDA draft guidance. It points out that MilkPEP CEO Yin Woon Rani referenced it in an article about the campaign in the marketing trade publication Little Black Book.

This isn’t the first time a USDA checkoff program has been scrutinized for how its funds were used to target the plant-based industry.

About a decade ago, members of the American Egg Board — which is the egg checkoff — started working on ways to thwart plant-based Just Mayo, a now-discontinued product made by Hampton Creek, currently known as Eat Just. Some of the checkoff’s funds went toward pro-egg advertisements, which appeared when people searched online for the plant-based condiment.

In an investigation, the USDA found the egg checkoff acted inappropriately and required training on checkoff program guidelines.

The situation with the egg checkoff and Hampton Creek inspired 2016 legislation to reform commodity checkoff programs to be more transparent and crack down on anti-competitive behavior. It has not yet passed, and forms of the same legislation are still being proposed.

MilkPEP and USDA did not respond to requests for comment.

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