ANNAPOLIS — The milk labeling debate has reached Annapolis.
Whether almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk and others should be allowed to use the term “milk” on their label is a debate farmers have been having at the national, state and Frederick County level for years. Now the state Legislature is getting its first taste, and the Maryland Senate has taken the side of farmers.
In a vote of 36-10 this week, the Senate gave its preliminary approval for Maryland to join an 11-state compact that would ban the sale of plant-based beverages under the “milk” label. North Carolina was the first state to pass the ban, which leaves nine slots to fill by 2029 for the ban to take effect.
“I like it better like this, because it would be impossible to enforce a one-state ban,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Harford and Cecil).
At the core of the debate is if consumers are being misled by the use of the word “milk” on plant-based alternative beverages, when the nutritional content of the products varies. There is also concern that alternatives are pushing dairy farms out of business.
Gallion is the only full-time farmer in the Maryland Senate, though Minority Leader J.B. Jennings likes to talk about his cattle in floor debates. Until 2004, Gallion ran a 70-cow Holstein and Jersey dairy operation before he switched to beef and hay.
He and Del. Jay Jacobs (R), of the Eastern Shore, are sponsoring the bill, which is making its first appearance in the Maryland General Assembly this year.
The bill originally would have banned the word “milk” on any product not derived from a cow or other animal, but Gallion worked with the Maryland Farm Bureau to amend the Senate versions of the bill so that the ban would take effect only if 10 other states passed the same rules.
Without the multi-state compact, Maryland could have violated interstate commerce laws, said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
However, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and state Republicans have blasted the Legislature in past years for forming multi-state compacts to solve local problems. Notably, in 2017, Hogan vetoed a Mid-Atlantic Compact that would have required six states to move together on nonpartisan redistricting plans.
If each of the six states passed similar legislation, they would then have a nonpartisan independent commission draw congressional lines. Republicans said the compact was unlikely to occur and Maryland should act on its own.
The Mid-Atlantic and dairy compact are different situations, Gallion said. Milk — unlike gerrymandering — is almost impossible for a state to change regulation of on its own, because it deals with commerce, he said.
Ultimately, the farming community would like to see a federal solution to the milk labeling debate. Last year, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced the agency would begin modernizing its food standards. The agency opened a public comment period, but so far no changes have come as a result.
“They’re dragging their feet, so we’re hoping with legislation and some pressure, we can get them to act,” Gallion said.
If Maryland and North Carolina can get other states to join the compact, then farmers will have leverage to get the FDA to enforce its current definition of milk, Ferguson said. If the FDA continue to take no action, however, there will also be a “huge increase in leverage” for other states to join the compact.
Maryland is not yet officially a member of the compact, as the legislation will need the support of the House of Delegates and governor before it can become law. Hogan has been sympathetic to the economic hardships of Maryland’s dairy farmers and provided $1.5 million in his supplemental budget to help them pay to increase their milk insurance coverage.
As of Thursday, no hearing in the House Environment and Transportation Committee had been scheduled. There are 18 days left in the General Assembly session.
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Real milk is less than half the price of these milk alternatives, so the milk farmers would actually benefit if people thought they were the same thing. And come on. Is anyone really fooled by the name? Are people thinking that almonds, soy beans, coconut, etc. naturally produce milk? Oh, wait, coconuts do produce "milk", so coconut milk should be exempt from these efforts, assuming it is sold in its natural form. The others could be called "milk subsitute" or "drink", as in "soy milk subsitute" or "almond drink", but I doubt that would affect sales. We know what it is by the cartons and that they are sold in the dairy section of the store. Milk farmers need help, but this effort is not going to help them. My preference is for the unsweetened cashew milk. The stuff tastes good with coffee and with cereal and has only a fifth of the calories of 2% milk. Sorry dairy farmers.
Place "Fabricated" in front of milk and problem solved[smile]
Animal milk is fabricated too.
I'm sympathetic to the plight of our dairy farmers, but attempts by government to manipulate market processes always backfire in some way. Modern, educated consumers are going to vote with their dollars for the perceived healthiest product no matter what it’s called. The name “Milk” when associated with the udder of an animal is not currently perceived as the healthy drink it once was. That’s a marketing issue.
Perhaps it’s the dairy industry that should be looking for an alternative name for milk. There is the danger (and likelihood) that bright marketers from the tree nut industry will (be forced to) come up with an even better, more appealing name than "Milk". I can’t really see that helping the dairy farmers.
The dairy industry's inattentiveness to consumer's changing tastes is to blame for the current slump in dairy prices. The dairy industry should be focusing efforts on promoting the very real health benefits of their products especially now that fats, both saturated and unsaturated, have been hoisted back into the limelight as healthful foods. Given dairy's high protein content and many other nutrients there’s a lot there to promote. Dairy need an image makeover. Creative and robust marketing will always be a better approach to dairy demand problems than running to the government for protection.
They should make more cheese.
Yah, if they come up with a catchy name, it might actually improve sales of the milk substitutes. Half and half (milk with added cream) has not been hurt by the fact that "milk" is not in its name.
Ya rb start whipping-up a batch, start a business, gender free of coarse. Nuts have protein in them but not as much as those nuts[beam]
I could sell nut milk.
Maybe to Vic?
The multi-state compact approach reminds of the similar effort to develop a work-around to the Electoral College.
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