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Views and opinions: Burger and shake by any other name may need better labeling

Since becoming the Managing Editor for Farm World, I am now conflicted about ordering my favorite drink from Starbucks. I love their Mango Dragonfruit refresher, and I loved it even more when I saw “add coconut milk.”

However, now when I say “add coconut milk,” I think of all of the emails in my inbox about food labeling. What is milk? What is meat? What is real? What is fake? By the time I make it to the drive-through window, my mind is whirling with all of the conflicting information.

My grandparents had one milk cow left when I was young. I have vague memories of following my Aunt Alice out to the barn while she milked the cow while it was still dark outside. She would squirt milk at the barn cats and then squirt some milk in a pan for them. I loved squirting milk at the cats, and I tried my hand a few times at milking.

I also have a dim memory of going into my grandparents’ basement and seeing milk being strained and thinking “hmm, kind of icky.” But, I definitely knew the milk I drank at Grandma Swaim’s house came from a cow.

I grew up understanding that coconut milk was not milk from a cow. I may have only known about coconut milk from watching “Gilligan’s Island.” (Technically, the castaways were drinking coconut water, as coconut milk only happens when the pulp of the coconut is pounded.)

I also always understood that a veggie burger did not contain meat, even though it did contain the word “burger.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines milk as “a fluid secreted by the mammary glands of females for the nourishment of their young: (1) milk from an animal and especially a cow used as food by people; (2) a food product produced from seeds or fruit that resembles and is used similarly to cow's milk.”

So that dictionary does use the definition to include uses such as soy or almond milk. In looking up the origins of the word “milk” it was used in the 14th century to include milk-like plant juices, I saw there is was history of using the word “milk” to include a liquid that did not come from a mammal.

Meat is even more confusing. Now that meat can be grown in a lab, what will that mean for labeling? Does it really matter if it is the same? Can it really be the same as meat from an animal?

I was surprised that when I polled my Facebook friends about eating lab-grown meat, more than half of them said they would try it. Most of my friends said they would be happier knowing the meat did not come from a farm animal raised in confinement conditions. I need to find out if they would prefer free-range meat to lab meat.

If we don’t call it meat, what will we call it? Then I start thinking of the movie “Soylent Green,” in which people are eating what they think is a protein wafer made from plankton, but what they are really eating is protein made from people.

Then I keep repeating the famous line uttered by Charlton Heston at the end of the movie: “Soylent Green is people!”

And if this all weren’t confusing enough, I just got an email from the National Bison Assoc., which launched an online petition last week asking the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to adopt new labeling policies to stop water buffalo products sold in the U.S. from being labeled only as “buffalo.”

According to the press release: “The National Bison Assoc. learned of a growing number of retail stores carrying water buffalo meat that is labeled only as ‘wild buffalo’ or ‘free-range buffalo.’” Because most Americans refer to bison as buffalo, you can see the confusion.

The press release noted that similar labeling is used in pet food, and the group is also asking U.S. pet food labeling officials to work on new rules on the use of “buffalo” versus “bison.”

It seems that common sense could prevail and people would just understand that the words “meat substitute” and “milk” don’t necessarily mean milk from a mammal and protein from an animal.

However, I also see the other side. Many people now have absolutely no connection with a farm or anyone who ever was on a farm. As fewer of us have memories of any type of farm life, it may be more difficult for those people to understand “real” milk or meat.

What are your thoughts on labeling? Shoot me an email at or write to me at: Connie Swaim, Farm World, P.O. Box 90, Knightstown, IN 46148.