The Bulletin

Goodbye almond milk, hello nut beverage? Lawmakers advance milk labeling bill.

By: - January 15, 2020 7:05 pm
Cows graze in Tazewell County. One dairy farm a week has closed in Virginia this year. (Josh/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0)

Cows graze in Tazewell County. One dairy farm a week has closed in Virginia this year. (Josh/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0)

Virginia Beach Del. Barry Knight’s milk bill cleared its first hurdle Wednesday afternoon when the House Agriculture Subcommittee voted 7-1 to pass it on for consideration to the larger Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

The measure, which defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved mammal,” has sparked some mockery from online commenters, but defenders say it’s a way to correct mislabeling that the federal Food and Drug Administration has failed to address. 

Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Loudoun, who is chairing the subcommittee, voiced some tentative reservations about the bill’s necessity early in the discussion. 

“There are, of course, uses of the word ‘milk’ traditionally in our language for other than dairy milk, hooved animal milk — things like milk of magnesia, and then we have body butter and things like this,” she said. “I wonder if there’s a way to use the word ‘dairy’ instead of remove the word ‘milk’?”

Knight, however, stuck to the bill’s existing wording for the purposes of uniformity with potential legislation by other states: an amendment he added would tie the enactment of Virginia legislation to enactment of the same or similar bill by 11 of 14 largely southern states by Oct. 1, 2029.

The bill has already been passed in Maryland and North Carolina.

“I think there may be, may be some people that may get confused when you talk about soy milk or almond milk and dairy milk, but no one’s going to get confused when you talk about milk of magnesia, because we all know what that is,” he told Gooditis. 

Speaking in opposition to the measure, Virginia Independent Consumer and Farmers’ Association member Anne Buteau brushed off that idea: “I really don’t think people are buying almond milk by mistake,” she said.

The FDA does have what it calls a “standard of identity” for milk that defines it as “the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows” but has not enforced that standard when it comes to beverages identified as milk.

Stefanie Kitchen, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s assistant director of governmental relations, said consumer confusion isn’t so much a matter of confusion over the product as it is confusion over nutritional value.

“Dairy milk has eight times the amount of protein as almond milk does,” she told the subcommittee. “We want to make sure they’re on a level playing field and that (plant-based beverages) are not capitalizing on the good marketing that the dairy industry does.”

Besides the mislabeling concerns, supporters also justified the bill as a way to shore up Virginia’s shrinking dairy industry.

“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia,” said Knight. “Our agricultural status is suffering in Virginia. I thought this … would certainly send a wonderful signal to our dairy farmers that we’re behind you.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.