Wisconsin Senate Bills beg the question: What’s in a name?

On February 5th, three bills were read into the record for the first time this year. These three bills are all related to food labeling. While this is a topic which may not gain as much press as many other subjects, it is a topic which we should keep a very close watch on. These three bills are SB81SB82, and SB83. Each bill also has a title but they are perfunctory and no one uses them anyway. Each of these bills relates to labeling of dairy products or dairy ingredients, meat and milk.

Why is this important? Isn’t “meat” just meat and “milk” just milk? Just like most everything else in life, it’s complicated. Let’s look at these two categories separately because there are two separate issues here.

Senate Bill 81 (SB81) and Senate Bill  83 (SB83) both have to do with dairy products, milk being a dairy product as well. Each bill lays out a rule that only milk from cows and other hooved or camelid mammals can be labeled as milk or a dairy product. Remember, one bill makes rules for diary products and the other specifically talks about milk. Pretty simple really. The language is a little convoluted but as proposed legislation goes, all of these bills are short and to the point.

Sandwiched in the middle is SB82. This bill proposes that a product is only “meat” if it comes from a once living animal. Interestingly enough, “insects” are also included as a source of meat. Again, straightforward, for legislation, to the point and quite short. Hidden in plain sight is a short mention of cultured meat, vat grown protein which grows cells originally from an animal. Is this meat? It may be structurally the same and chemically very similar but since it was not cut out of a once living animal is it meat? Not according to this bill. Strange because I bet that a person who cannot eat beef due to a food allergy still could not eat vat-grown beef. So, why is it not meat? In both cases, the origins are the same.

Interesting though isn’t it? Why do we need legislation to tell us what milk, meat and dairy products are? Well, there are a few ways to look at this question: allergens, marketing and removing competition.

Food allergies are serious; sometimes deadly serious. These bills have nothing to do with that. These bills set rules that say that if it is not a certain type of milk then you can’t call it “milk,” if it isn’t made from “milk” than you can’t call it a “dairy product,” and if it doesn’t come from a living animal you can’t call it “meat.” If you avoid meat and dairy due to health concerns, or ethical concerns, you still won’t be purchasing any of these products.

This comes back around every couple years and now it’s back again because of the increased popularity of products that are neither milk, dairy or meat that use these words on their product labels. One argument that has been made is that consumers might be confused between “coconut milk” and “2% low-fat milk.” Sure, maybe someone in a hurry saw the word “milk,” grabbed the wrong thing and hurried off to their next errand, but I doubt that is a common occurrence. While this proposed legislation is said to be an attempt to help area farms of all sizes, it is a mere diversion from what is really hurting small and mid-size farms: overproduction from farms of scale.

Unfortunately, trade organizations have lead some small and mid-size farmers to blame plant-based products for their losses, but it is unlikely that calling plant-based products something other than milk, dairy, or meat substitutes will make any substantial difference.

No person who regularly avoids meat and dairy is going to start purchasing these products because of a name change. Anyone who loves black bean burgers will still buy them even if they have to be named black bean patties. But think about all the money that would need to go into rebranding products if laws like this went into effect. The end result of such legislation is bound to be higher prices for consumers. Perhaps a more fitting name for this legislation would be to call it a vegan tax.

This is all being proposed while more and more people are discovering that they have developed an intolerance to many animal products known as alpha-gal syndrome, often caused by a bite from a Lone Star tick.

These and other bills like these are not being proposed to protect the consumer. Bills like this are fillers for lawmakers who do not want to tackle the real questions of governing but still want to show that they are working hard for their parties and large donors.

On February 18th, two of these bills have been sent to the state Assembly, both having to do with dairy products: AB74AB75. These two bills are substantially the same. Watch these bills and bills like them. If these are topics which are important to you, let your representatives know how you feel about them. We have seen far too many examples of bad government over the last several years and the only way to put a stop to bad government is to hold government accountable. That may mean that we need to pay more attention to what lawmakers at all levels are doing.

Jennifer J. Dolan contributed to this article.