This spring, an advertising campaign developed by the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) captured the internet when it parodied the rise of alternative milk beverages by proclaiming that actress Aubrey Plaza had developed a company that makes “milk” from trees — referred to as wood milk. The satirical videos, website, and other online posts were designed to draw attention to the fact that “only real milk is real.”
The campaign received praise as well as pushback, but it faces more formal criticism now. On May 25, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint with the USDA Office of Inspector General that the ads violate a statutory prohibition against advertising that is “false or misleading or disparaging to another agricultural commodity.” The fluid milk checkoff is also prohibited from “employ[ing] unfair or deceptive acts or practices with respect to the quality, value or use of any competing product,” the complaint states.
The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine describes itself in the complaint as a non-profit public health organization that advocates for preventative medicine through proper nutrition, encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness and medical research, and conducts clinical research on the relationships between food and disease. The group does not disclose that it is an animal rights organization that seeks to remove all animal products from human diets, in addition to eliminating the use of animals in scientific research.
The complaint is rooted in the fact that MilkPEP is one of the checkoff programs administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). AMS is not to approve advertising that is deemed disparaging to another agricultural commodity, false, or misleading. The wood milk campaign is all of those things, the committee writes.
The complaint further asserts that the campaign also violates a federal law that checkoff dollars cannot be used to influence legislation or government actions. Their rationale stems from the Food and Drug Administration’s February 23 announcement of its proposed guidelines that would allow plant-based “milks” to use that term. Comments on that proposal were to be open until April 24. The wood milk campaign was launched on April 20, and on May 1, the comment period was extended until July 31. They also cite connections to the DAIRY PRIDE Act proposed in the U.S. Senate, which would prohibit dairy alternatives from being labelled with dairy terms.
The duty of the Office of Inspector General is to conduct audits and investigations to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in USDA programs, and the complaint asks them to investigate and recommend that the campaign be halted. The committee also calls for the checkoff to issue corrective advertising that refutes the campaign’s statements and discloses that “plant-based milks can be at least as nutritious — if not more nutritious than — fluid milk."