SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Despite bringing one of the most nutritious products to the table in a sustainable way and contributing to their communities, dairy farmers and processors are facing an onslaught of counterclaims and detrimental mislabeling of products.

Too many consumers don’t know dairy’s incredible story, and they are easily misled. It’s up to the industry, producers and brands to increase and restore their trust, Sarah Hanson, executive vice president of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, said during the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual conference on Friday.

“When you look at your marketing, are we focusing on the positive and building love for dairy products?” she asked.

More than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from. But the disconnect between urban and rural has never been wider. Consumers are also into experimenting and exploring different products, diets and lifestyles, and they are looking to non-traditional sources such as celebrities for nutritional advice, she said.

They are also putting their money where their mouth is, making purchases based on their social causes, she said.

“When it comes to trust, we have to walk the talk,” she said.

That means putting consumers first, addressing social responsibility, aligning production with best practices, documenting and demonstrating, she said.

Instead, the industry is shifting its focus away from the goodness of dairy and its unparalleled nutrition. Absence-claim marketing (such as hormone-free) is so pervasive, and it’s being used within the industry itself, she said.

Brands need to be brands, but the industry needs to work on building consumer trust on a pre-competitive basis. Building trust is the basis of the “Undeniably Dairy” campaign, she said.

“This is really up to all of us to engage in this campaign. This is a platform that can work no matter where you sit in the value chain,” she said.

Protecting and defending the integrity of dairy is a really important issue for the industry, Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation, said.

“If we don’t have trust with consumers, we don’t have a marketplace,” he said.

While the industry takes the high road through dairy checkoff promotion, “we also have to engage in the rough and tumble out there,” he said.

NMPF is doing that on two major fronts, battling absence-claim marketing and mislabeling of imitation dairy products with dairy terminology, he said.

The issue with absence claims is fear-based marketing, such as when one of the largest yogurt companies marketed its product as coming from cows that consumed GMO-free feed. That marketing is a race to the bottom as other companies match the claim, he said.

NMPF’s Peel Back the Label campaign is calling out companies that use such marketing and pushing back by trying to get consumers to question the scientific validity of the claims associated with such labels as GMO-free or hormone-free, he said.

NMFP is hoping the effort will persuade consumers to not buy into fear-based marketing, he said.

The other issue is the proliferation of plant-based products using the halo of dairy to label their products with terms such as milk, butter, yogurt and cheese, and it’s only going to grow. The problem emerged because FDA hasn’t exercised its authority to enforce standards of identity.

“This is an issue for the entire dairy industry. If we don’t win this battle, it’s going to be extremely difficult for all of us,” he said.

While FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has announced the agency will begin enforcing the standards of identity, NMPF doesn’t think his focus is identical to that of the dairy industry. It’s going to be a battle that requires the engagement of the entire industry, he said.

“It’s a fight we have to win. This is our last best chance to win it,” he said.

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