Va. lawmakers vote to define ‘milk’ as coming from a ‘healthy hooved animal’

Va. lawmakers vote to define ‘milk’ as coming from a ‘healthy hooved animal’
A bill to legally define the word "milk" in Virginia has now passed both chambers of the General Assembly. (Source: Alison Durheim)

RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV/CNS) — A bill to legally define the word "milk" in Virginia has now passed both chambers of the General Assembly.

House Bill 119 passed the House of Delegates on a 66-32 vote on Jan. 29 and the Senate on a 24-16 vote on Feb. 27.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, introduced the bill, which defines milk as the lacteal secretion “obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved animal.”

The bill prohibits plant-based milk alternative products from marketing their products as milk. If passed into law, HB 119 would direct the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services to launch a plan banning any products mislabeled under the new definition from Virginia stores.

Knight, a pig farmer, said agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, and the state government has to protect it.

With votes from each side of the statehouse, the bill will now head to Governor Ralph Northam's desk.

As people drink less dairy milk and some turn to plant-based alternatives such as oat, soy and almond milk, dairy farmers say they're struggling.

Virginia produced about 1.6 billion pounds of dairy milk in 2018, and the number of permits issued to dairy farmers is on the decline, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia, and farmers are struggling hard,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘well, maybe these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk.’”

Since 1975, the amount of milk consumed per capita in America has tumbled more than 40%, a slide attributed to a number of reasons but mostly the rise of so many other choices, including teas, sodas, juices and, most recently, non-dairy substitutes like coconut, almond, rice, and soy milk.

That has hit dairy farms and milk sellers hard, leading some smaller family farmers to quit the business. With the price of milk already at a low point, but costly to make, dairy farmers believe non-dairy milks are cutting into their profit and making their financial situation worse.

"I don't want to limit people's choices as to what they can buy and drink," Will said. "But if it's going to be artificial or imitation milk, it should say that on the label."

Frank Will, the owner of Mount Crawford Creamery, told WHSV he supports the bill.

As is the case with the North Carolina law, HB 119 was amended to say that 11 states need to pass similar legislation for the law to go into effect.

Michael Robbins, a spokesperson from the Plant Based Foods Association, believes the bill is unnecessary, and the dairy industry has created a “bogeyman” in plant-based milk, instead of addressing the tangible issues the dairy industry faces.

“We view these bills as a solution in search of a problem,” Robbins said. “There is no consumer confusion on plant-based dairy alternatives versus dairy coming from a hooved animal. Consumers know exactly what they’re purchasing.”

Mississippi and Arkansas passed their own “truth in labeling” laws for plant-based meat alternatives such as tofu dogs and beyond burgers, which were challenged and overturned on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. Robbins said if milk labeling bills become law, the plant-based food industry will fight them in court.

“Right now, because none of those bills are in effect, there’s no standing to challenge them in court, but step one would be to file an appropriate lawsuit,” Robbins said.

Will said he hopes this bill would help farmers, but he doesn’t think it would hurt.

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