At the 96th annual meeting of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, 150 members agreed to make enforcement of milk labeling their sole federal issue on which to focus in 2018. In December, farmers from across the state will vote on whether the policy should also be Maryland’s national priority.
Milk is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as the lacteal secretion obtained from milking one or more healthy cows. Still, plant products such as almond, soy, rice, coconut and others have entered the market with the word “milk” on their labels.
“Last time I checked, there weren’t teats on an almond,” said Colby Ferguson, director of government relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau.
A bill introduced earlier this year in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives asks the Food and Drug Administration to enforce the definition of “milk.”
The bill’s lengthy name — Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act — is more commonly referred to as the Dairy Pride Act. The bill has not advanced in either chamber, but milk labeling has become a focal point of the dairy industry as it struggles to stay afloat.
Cow’s milk sales in the U.S. dropped 6.1 percent between April 2016 and April 2017, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Another USDA study found that 86 percent of Americans consume less dairy than is recommended under the current federal dietary guidelines.
The dairy industry has tried to pinpoint reasons for the decline in sales and consumption of cow’s milk. Some think that changes to milk standards for school lunches — that require schools to offer only low-fat or nonfat milk — and the proliferation of plant-based alternatives may have driven people away from cow’s milk.
The crux of the bill is that the use of the word “milk” by plant-based alternatives is misleading to consumers. Cow’s milk and plant milk offer different nutritional and vitamin contents, but the use of “milk” by both creates a false equivalency.
“When does the bastardization of a term finally get to the point that it has no meaning?” Ferguson asked.
When the FDA was asked if there was a contradiction between the definition of “milk” and the way plant-based beverages were labeled, the agency said it was looking at the situation.
“The FDA is reviewing the issue and takes action in accordance with public health priorities and agency resources,” spokeswoman Deborah Kotz said in an email Thursday.
The high cost of labor, seed and machinery — paired with depressed milk prices — has made it increasingly hard for dairy farmers to cover the cost of production with milk sales alone. Some have diversified and opened ice cream shops, while others have left the industry.
Robert Ramsburg, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, considers himself a semi-retired dairy farmer since ceasing his own dairy operation. He still helps a man milk a herd of 100 cows once a day, every day. Over time, he has watched Frederick County’s dairy farms disappear.
He estimated there were 1,000 dairy farms in Frederick County in the 1950s and less than 80 now.
In July, the Maryland Farm Bureau listed the dairy industry as one of its state issues of concern, and Thursday was the deadline for county chapters to hand in their local, state and federal priorities for consideration at the state level, Ferguson said.
Asking for change
The Farm Bureau chapters of Frederick, Carroll, Washington and Harford counties each listed federal enforcement of existing milk labeling regulations as a federal priority, and it has the potential to become a state priority at the state convention in early December.
The Frederick County Farm Bureau has the largest delegation at the state conference. It can take one representative for every 50 voting members — of which it has about 960, Ramsburg said.
Ramsburg brought the milk labeling idea to the Frederick County chapter after attending a board meeting of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association. The association’s president brought pea milk for the members to try during the usual milk and doughnuts before the meeting, which promoted discussions that he then brought back to the local Farm Bureau chapter.
If the Maryland Farm Bureau membership decides to make milk labeling its national priority, then it will be sent to the federal level for consideration. There is the potential, though, that even if the state votes to promote it to the national level, that it will never gain traction outside Maryland, Ramsburg said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which is the congressional lobbying arm of the organization, has 6 million members including dairymen as well as soybean, almond and other plant-milk growers. Maryland Farm Bureau President Chuck Fry serves on the national Council of Presidents and represents farmers from Maryland up through the Northeast.
Fry is a dairyman, but on Thursday, he was harvesting soybeans to feed his herd. He acknowledged the irony.
Milk labeling has been discussed at the national level since at least last year, he said. In his opinion, if it was not yet a national policy, then it would be soon. The challenge — if it is not — will be creating consensus among farmers from the variety of markets the American Farm Bureau Federation represents, he said.
Soybeans grown in Frederick County that are sold to Eddie Mercer Agri-Services are then sold to Perdue in Salisbury, Maryland, for high-protein animal feed and soybean oil — not soy milk. Some soybeans also go to Baltimore for export, said Tom Mullineaux, a company employee and member of the Frederick County Farm Bureau.
So far, no Maryland representatives have sponsored the Dairy Pride Act, though there has been no national push by the American Farm Bureau Federation to ask representatives to sign on either, Ferguson said.
The Farm Bureau is designed to be a grassroots organization. With President Donald Trump’s administration responding to farmers’ concerns of overreach with the Waters of the United States rule, which goes beyond the Clean Water Act to tightly regulate even small bodies of water, there was hope that milk labeling might also be addressed during his administration, Ferguson said.
“It’s going through the grassroots process,” Ferguson said. “This is a very big issue.”