By Mark Sowers
Sowers resides in Floyd. Along with his brother Curtis, they own and operate Huckleberry Farms, a century farm that’s been in business for over 100 years. They operate a Grade A dairy farm and also raise beef cattle.
Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, and has been the pride of the Commonwealth since Jamestown was founded as the first colony. Today, farming has an economic impact of $52 billion per year in Virginia, providing nearly 311,000 jobs. In 2014, milk was the state’s third-most profitable agricultural product, bringing in $478 million from over 1,000 operations.
Our family farm in Floyd has been producing Grade A milk for 60 years. Virginia dairy farmers have worked to build on their success over generations by creating a product with clear and consistent benefits to consumers, including nine essential nutrients and vitamins. When a product describes itself as “milk,” people should know what they’re getting.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing nutritionally inferior copycats hijack the good name of milk – even though this violates federal law that dictates what exactly should bear the label. Some dairymen have even heard that people think “almond” is just a flavor of cow’s milk. Can the average consumer really know the difference? We must protect the integrity of food labels by making sure any pretenders can’t use the same term on their packaging. I support passage of the Dairy Pride Act, and encourage my elected officials to do the same.
This bill, introduced in both the House and Senate, simply asks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do something it has been failing to do in recent decades: enforce its already clear-cut rules stating that milk (and similar foods such as cheese, ice cream and yogurt) must come from an animal source. This isn’t about creating a new definition for milk — that already exists. We are simply asking the companies that make imitation dairy products to respect it, and asking the FDA to ensure that everyone plays by the same rules.
These rules were put in place to prevent companies from promoting their inferior alternatives. None of these imitators can match the natural, consistent and high levels of nutrients contained in real milk. Instead, they often contain pulverized grains or nuts, unnatural emulsifiers and whiteners, and a few nutrients. That means the ingredient list for a typical milk alternative can run some 15 items long. In comparison, every glass of real milk is naturally packed with nutrients like calcium, Vitamin D and magnesium, which helps the growth, maintenance and repair of the body’s cells. Can you say the same for gellan gum, typically found in almond “milk”?
I am proud to be able produce a nutritious product for the American people, but our enforcement agencies need to catch up to the rest of the world. Our neighbors in Canada and cousins in the United Kingdom are much more forceful in policing how dairy alternative companies label their products. For example, a U.S. beverage company is introducing its almond “milk” product in Canada, but Canadian law dictates it must be called “almond beverage.” It’s the same exact product, but Canada dutifully enforces its law that says nut and seed-based imitators cannot use the term “milk” on its labels. Regrettably, the United States is much more lax about enforcing its own policy.
We need the FDA to do its job — nothing more, nothing less —and simply force impersonators to remove the term “milk” from its nutritionally inferior products. Virginia’s reputation as a strong agriculture state is too great to risk the invasion of these imitators.