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.