Companies can now legally label vegan milk products as “milk” in Virginia.
The state just rejected a bill that would have censored the labeling of plant-based milk products as “milk.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam vetoed the legislation—House Bill 119—this past weekend.
HB 119 defined milk “as the lacteal secretion of a healthy hooved mammal. [It also] provides that a food product is unlawfully misbranded if its label states that it is milk and it fails to meet such definition, except for human breast milk.”
The bill directed the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services to ban all plant-based milk products “misbranded” as milk.
According to a statement from the Good Food Institute (GFI), HB 119 was the only bill out of 1,291 measures passed during this year’s General Assembly that Governor Northam decided to veto.
When calling for the veto, GFI’s regulatory counsel Nigel Barrella said the passage of HB 119—amended to say that 11 other states would need to pass similar legislation for the law to go into effect—would impact the plant-based milk industry.
“If 11 other states pass similar legislation, consumers could no longer find labels like ‘soy milk,’ ‘almond milk,’ or ‘coconut milk’ on their supermarket shelves,” he said.
“Companies would [have] to choose between using opaque and confusing language like ‘coconut beverage’ and ‘almond juice,” he added. “Or [they would have to] pull out of the marketplace entirely, under the threat of fines or even jail time.”
In a statement, the governor’s spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said the governor strongly supports the dairy industry. But she added, “he is concerned this bill is unconstitutional.”
She said Northam worries the bill may violate commercial freedom of speech.
The number of dairy farms in Virginia is falling. The state is losing around one dairy farmer every week. This statistic prompted Delegate Barry Knight to introduce HB 119 last year.
“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia, and farmers are struggling hard,” he said in a statement. “I thought, ‘well, maybe these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk.'”
Across the U.S., more than 3,200 dairy farms shut down in 2019. A shift to plant-based milk consumption may be a contributing factor, but according to the USDA, people are drinking less cow’s milk in general. From 1975, milk consumption has dropped 40 percent.
Michael Robbins—a spokesperson for the Plant Based Foods Association—believes the dairy industry created a “bogeyman” in the plant-based milk industry.
He said earlier this year, “we view these bills as a solution in search of a problem. There is no consumer confusion on plant-based dairy alternatives versus dairy coming from a hooved animal. Consumers know exactly what they’re purchasing.”