I’ve long believed that food labeling regulations are less about consumer protection and more about companies trying to use government to hurt competition and gain an edge over rival products. For example, the recent push for the FDA to define the word “natural” on food packaging was, in my opinion, nothing more than food producers seeking a government seal of approval for their products, and one that would be unavailable to many of their competitors.
This trend of rent seeking continues with a new lobbying effort from dairy farmers, who insist that the word “milk” should be legally reserved for the products of animal lactation. What this would mean in practice is that popular products such as soy milk and almond milk would have to change their names to something else — something with, one can imagine, a far less appetizing sound.
Dairy lobbyists claim that they only care about fairness and suppressing misinformation. They accuse these milk substitutes of “masquerading as milk,” implying that unwitting consumers are being duped into buying products they don’t really want by confusing packaging.
Of course, this is utter nonsense, and everyone knows it. No one is buying almond milk or soy milk because they think it comes from cows; they’re buying it precisely because they want something that doesn’t come from cows. As consumers are increasingly concerned about their health, as well as about the welfare of animals used to produce dairy products, some have turned toward plant-based substitutes for milk — a perfectly reasonable and logical choice not motivated by confusion or misinformation.
To the extent that this has hurt dairy farmers’ bottom line (milk substitutes now make up about 9 percent of the market), it is because the farmers are not selling what people want to buy, not because they are being tricked.
On the other hand, if the dairy lobby gets its way, and all these products suddenly were suddenly forced to change their names, consumers would be confused and have difficulty finding the products they really want. This isn’t about accurate information — it’s about the dairy lobby getting nervous about the competition.
This brings us to the problem of government attempting to dictate what words mean. The great thing about language is how quickly and easily it evolves and adapts to meet the needs of the speakers. When we need a new name for something, a new product or service perhaps, language is quick to oblige, often resorting to analogy to apply the familiar to a new situation.
One example that springs to mind is the French pomme de terre, which means potato, but which literally means “apple of the earth.” It’s a poetic and descriptive name for a prosaic object, and no one in France is mistakenly bringing home bags of potatoes thinking they are apples. Further examples in English include broccoli rabe (not broccoli), peanuts (not nuts), and pineapples (not apples and not from pine trees).
The beauty of language is in its organic qualities — how it grows and changes independent of any single speaker. This is the process F.A. Hayek called “spontaneous order.” No one sat down to construct language, it merely emerged on its own. And when people have tried to artificially build a new tongue from the ground up, the result is typically brutal and unmusical, as in the case of Esperanto and Klingon.
Language is not a designed system; it reflects the usage of those who speak it, and it shouldn’t be standardized or regulated by a central authority. Of course, it’s also true that this process of evolution can sometimes leave certain individuals behind. “I’m a believer that milk is milk, and milk needs to come from animals,” said one dairy farmer. He didn’t specify how he feels about coconut milk, a term which has been in use since 1698 without apparent confusion.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.