Milk by any other name?

I had written about the peanut butter brands available in India, back in 2018. I had then wondered why Amul had not entered that category.

Yesterday, I see Amul advertise its new product!

This is after Kissan recently made its entry into this category.

But, do you notice something different between Amul and Kissan’s products? Kissan (and every other Indian brand) calls it, “Peanut Butter“. Amul calls it “Peanut spread”. If it feels like ‘butter’ and the world has been calling it ‘butter’ for ages, why is Amul refusing to use that word?

Because Amul is like that – a stickler for framing, in categories that they march into. Plus, they own the largest selling actual, milk-based butter brand in India. To call something that does not have cattle-based milk also as ‘butter’ may be blasphemous in Amul’s scheme of things.

The last time they took such framing very seriously was during their war waged against Hindustan Unilever’s Kwality Walls ice cream – Amul called the rival as ‘frozen dessert’ and their own variant as true ‘ice cream’ because it is made from milk.

Amul then questioned biscuit brands like Britannia GoodDay if what they produce in the name of ‘butter’ cookies really has butter or vegetable oil! And positioned their own butter cookies as the real deal.

Now, Amul is going for the jugular because it believes its main bastion is being challenged – the very word ‘milk’.

In a full-page, very wordy advertisement in the Mint newspaper yesterday, Amul opened the salvo against plant-based ‘milk’ brands using the word ‘milk’. And started their entire argument under ‘Fact’ by referring to Indian mythology (myth), as noticed and pointed out by @postwar on Twitter.

So, why is Amul bothered? It is the milk-producing behemoth of India. In comparison, plant-based, non-dairy milk brands pale in terms of sales or awareness, though they are gradually trying their best.

But Amul’s argument, while framed as being about the use of ‘milk’ goes into multiple directions including the quality of nutrients in plant-based milk, production practices, the legal definition and that their milk industry is crucial to the Indian economy. A market leader may not shout so loudly unless there is some provocation or fear from a rival.

The point is, it is good to have choice as consumers. And plant-based milk brands clearly use the word ‘milk’ along with a context – almond, soya, and so on even if we, the consumers, use it in similar ways as we use cattle-based milk – to make coffee (even though it doesn’t add well, I’m told), along with breakfast cereals and so on. Almost as a substitute to cattle-based milk, much to the annoyance of Amul, I reckon.

This was one of the arguments used by TofuTown, a German plant foods company, when they were sued in 2017 for the use of the words ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’. TofuTown argued that the use of dairy-based words like ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ was always along with words referring to the plant origins of the ingredients – like ‘tofu butter’ or ‘veggie cheese’. In its verdict, the European Court of Justice ruled that ‘milk’ and related terms can only be used for advertising products that originate from animals.

But, in 2018, when Blue Diamond’s almond milk was sued for using the word ‘milk’ in order to mislead consumers into buying ‘milk’ that is not from cows, the US court ruled that the complaint does not plausibly allege that a reasonable consumer would be deceived into believing that Blue Diamond’s almond milk products are nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk based on their package labels and advertising!

In 2018, the sizes of the respective industries stood at US $35.5 billion for the cattle milk industry vs. US $1.6 billion for the plant-based milk industry – so it is understandable why the 2 sides are fighting for the use of ‘milk’. A lot is at stake in terms of perception and image.

In comparison, the Indian cattle milk industry’s size is US $144.55 billion vs. US $20 million for plant-based ‘milk’ products! As per a January 2021 news article in The Economic Times, many plant-based ‘milk’ producers have already removed ‘milk’ from their branding and are replacing it with ‘drink’ or ‘beverage’! This is because the food regulator has recommended in a proposal to the Indian health ministry that plant-based ‘milk’ producing companies be prevented from using the word milk in their labeling and advertising.

So why is Amul still going hammer and tongs against them, when even the Government and FSSAI seem to be on their side? It clearly looks like the turf war is in their favor, market-size-wise and legality-wise. The only impediment could be increasing demand for alternative milk varieties, but even this is a tiny speck in front of demand for cattle milk. It looks like Amul wants to decimate this potential rival from even becoming a minor-sized threat – else a full-page salvo seems like overkill.

There was a similar war brewing in UK in terms of the meat industry too! There was a proposal to ban the use of ‘veggie burger’ because it did not contain meat! I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to McDonald’s famous paneer burger! But the European parliament allowed the plant-based meat industry to use ‘meat’, while disallowing plant-based milk producers in 2017 to use the word ‘milk’ for almond, soya or coconut ‘milk’!

Moving from milk to burger and beyond, you also see a similar attempt at owning words in other kinds of food too. The owner of a Hyderabadi Biryani restaurant in Pune had this at the lobby of the restaurant! He clearly is in a similar mood like Amul but in jest 🙂

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