Do you need a cow to make milk? Or can it come from a plant? Say an almond? Or a coconut? Or a hemp seed?

This isn’t an academic question or a debate about foodie semantics but the heart of a food fight heating up in Congress over what can legally be called “milk” and whether it has to come from a mammal or can originate with a bean, nut or seed. The fight pits dairy farmers against soymilk makers and recently attracted Sen. Angus King.

The independent from Maine threw his respected voice behind the dairy farms when he agreed to co-sponsor a bill called the Dairy Pride Act that directs the Food & Drug Administration to stop plant-based milk, cheese and yogurt makers from using traditional dairy words (such as “milk,” “cheese” and “yogurt”) on their labels. The bill alleges such terms “are misleading to consumers.”

“Maine dairy farmers work hard day-in and day-out to meet FDA standards and deliver high-quality dairy products to tabletops across Maine and the nation,” Sen. King said in an early April statement announcing his support for the bill. “So I think it’s an insult to them that the FDA is simply allowing imitation products to skirt the rules and label themselves as dairy products when they are clearly not.”

Jeff Wolovitz, who owns Heiwa Soy Beanery in Rockport, was surprised to hear King characterize the use of the word “soymilk” on his bottled product as an insult to farmers.

“I can’t imagine any of the dairy farmers I know objecting to me marketing my soymilk as soymilk,” Wolovitz said. “I personally think the whole issue is a distraction from the many critical issues government needs to address. I’m not sure about the other plant-based milks, but as far as soymilk is concerned, it is a traditional food.”

Soymilk is mentioned in Chinese texts going back 2,000 years.

Portland nut milk maker Myranda McGowan disagrees with the bill’s assertion that she is mislabeling her products and misleading consumers. She owns The Whole Almond located at the Fork Food Lab in Bayside and said the words “almond milk” and “cashew milk” on her labels tell her customers at farmers markets and co-ops exactly what they are buying.

“I’ve never once had someone say they thought it was cow’s milk,” McGowan said. “That’s never happened.”

Even though the bill claims plant-based beverages are “misleading to consumers,” King’s spokesperson Scott Ogden told me “Sen. King believes that the majority of people who purchase these non-dairy products understand that they are, indeed, not milk.”

The intent of the bill, Ogden said, “is not to penalize non-dairy producers or to stifle competition. It is to ensure that a product is labeled in an accurate and truthful way.”

McGowan at The Whole Almond said if the FDA prevents her from using the word “milk” on her beverages, “it would put me in a difficult place because I wouldn’t know what to call it.”

She said using the word “milk” modified by the name of the nut it’s made from is the clearest way to identify her product. Any other description, she said, would be less accurate and potentially confusing.

“My product resembles milk,” McGowan said. “It is a milk substitute.”

Michele Simon heads the Plant Based Foods Association headquartered in San Francisco and represents the largest plant-based food manufacturers in Congress. She agrees with McGowan that dairy terms belong on plant-based products to ensure accuracy and transparency.

“For decades, consumers have purchased soymilk and more recently almond milk, cashew milk, etc.,” Simon said in an email. “To use other words to describe these familiar products would create more confusion in the marketplace. Moreover, changing the labels won’t help dairy farmers at all. This is a solution in search of a problem.”

Lead-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and backed by dairy farmers, the Dairy Pride Act directs the FDA to enforce its own definition of milk and cream as products made from the “lacteal secretion … of one or more healthy cows.”

But the bill is proving controversial even among its official supporters, since these days some dairy companies also sell plant-based milks.

For example, Sen. Baldwin’s website lists the International Dairy Foods Association as a supporter, but its head Michael Dykes testified before the U.S. House of Representative’s Agriculture Committee in March that his members were split over the Dairy Pride bill. He conceded that issues of labeling are “probably best resolved in the marketplace.”

This debate about labels reminds me of the 2015 dust-up at the FDA over Hampton Creek’s vegan Just Mayo using the word “mayo” although it doesn’t contain eggs as FDA definitions require. Ultimately, the FDA allowed the Just Mayo name to stand.

Trying to better understand this issue, I’ve spent time scrutinizing the plant-based dairy aisles of Portland’s grocery stores. Here I’ve found a few plant-based brands that don’t use the words “milk,” “cheese” or “yogurt” and instead are labeled as “rice drink” or “almond non-dairy beverage.” These vague terms gain clarity from their placement alongside bottles labeled “ricemilk” and “almondmilk.”

I’ve been unable to find non-dairy milks labeled as “milk” without a modifier (oat, hazelnut, flax) or a play on words. For instance, Blake Orchard on Exchange Street in the Old Port makes Mylk, supermarket brand Forager sells a Cashewgurt, and the former Elmhurst Dairy in New York (which recently switched from bottling cow’s milk to milking nuts) rebranded and now calls its minimally processed beverages Milked.

The story of Elmhurst is the story of the modern dairy industry: Cow’s milk sales are slipping (in Elmhurst’s case into unprofitable territory) while sales of almond milk and other plant-based alternatives soar. In fact, much of the reporting on the Dairy Pride Act by the New York Times, Forbes and others has focused on the public’s fading interest in cow’s milk while plant-based milks go mainstream.

Writing to Sen. King in early July, the Portland-based Maine Animal Coalition expressed opposition to the Dairy Pride Act and called on him to “assist dairy farmers in Maine to transition to crops that are on the rise, not to keep subsidizing a product that people are telling you they want less of.”

Which brings me back to the plant-based dairy aisle and a macadamia nut milk called Milkadamia. Scrutinizing it, I notice the bottle includes this tagline: “Moo is moot.”

And suddenly it hits me. The real issue at the heart of the Dairy Pride bill is not mislabeling or misleading consumers but, as the title clearly states, pride. Or, more precisely, wounded pride.

The dairy industry was once a pillar of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Basic Four” food groups and as American as mom and her apple pie. But these days dairy is reduced to a fifth of the USDA’s MyPlate (forced to shared the shrunken space with Dairy Pride nemesis soymilk). And fewer moms bake pies. And some of the moms who still make pies serve them with a side of pea protein milk.

This is not your grandma’s kitchen.

As the granddaughter of a proud Maine dairyman, I can see how such cleverly worded quips would grate on a hardworking farmer’s nerves, particularly in the face of financial hardship.

Yet despite the hurt feelings, no matter what Congress does this issue is unlikely to go away. In two recent rulings in California, the courts have sided with almond milk makers over the dairy industry, stating that modifying milk with the word “almond” makes it abundantly clear what is – and isn’t – being sold.

“If the Dairy Pride Act were to pass, it would be a violation of free market principles and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” said Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute spokesperson Emily Byrd. She added, “If it passes, we will sue.”

Which leaves me wondering: Do either Congress or the courts have the power to change (or even slow down) consumer trends in the dairy case?

Because as King’s spokesperson told me, the senator “has heard from many non-dairy drinkers across the state, and he understands that many of them prefer plant-based products due to personal preference or dietary restrictions, as he also does at times.”

So there you have it. Even Sen. King drinks plant-based milks.

This leads me to only one conclusion: the Maine Animal Coalition has it right. We don’t need the Dairy Pride Act. What we need is a bill that offers grants to transition dairy farmers to soybean, oat or hemp farming and milk-processing plants to plant-based milk manufacturers.

Congress can call it the Plant Pride Act. I’ll call it a win-win.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila