When the deadline for Gov. Ralph Northam to take action on legislation came Saturday, he approved more than 40 bills sponsored by Valley legislators and vetoed only one -- the milk bill.
Northam said in his veto explanation that eliminating the ability to label certain food products as milk could hinder a business’ ability to “thrive in Virginia.”
“This bill likely conflicts with both the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and each’s protection of commercial speech,” Northam said.
For decades, dairy farmers have been fighting over what is and isn’t milk as plant-based beverages have been using the name “milk” in their labeling. In grocery stores the different products can be found on the same shelf, making it difficult to separate what comes from an animal and what comes from plants, critics say.
In an effort to change that, Del. Barry Knight, R-Chesapeake, filed House Bill 119 that would define milk as the “lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrums, obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved mammal.”
Human breast milk would be an exception.
Any beverage being labeled as milk that fails to meet the proposed definition would be prohibited.
Showing their support to the agricultural community, Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater, became a chief co-patron to the legislation and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, also became a sponsor.
“It’s one of those things people may think sounds silly, when it’s not,” Wilt said. “I am sad to see that the governor would veto it.”
Other sponsors include Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Michael Webert, R-Culpeper — making the bill one of bipartisan support.
Wilt questioned which businesses Northam was referring to in his veto explanation, adding that the dairy industry is reliant on milk.
Runion said in a previous interview with the Daily News-Record that he added his name to the bill because of whom he represents in the Valley.
“It’s disappointing the governor chose to ignore the hardworking dairy farmers in the commonwealth, but not surprised his focus is not on rural Virginia,” Runion said Monday. “Unfortunately, in today’s economy, farmers are faced with declining consumption with schools and restaurants being closed. Now, more than ever, our farmers need to be offered opportunities for success, not obstacles and obstructions.”
The support of 66 delegates and 24 senators who passed the legislation in the General Assembly were no match for Northam's veto pen.
“We are certainly disappointed in the governor's decision,” said Stephanie Kitchen, assistant director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Signing the bill would have signaled a strong message of support to Virginia's struggling dairy farmers.”
Rockingham County is the top milk producing county in Virginia, making up nearly a third of dairy in the commonwealth, according to Eric Paulson, the executive secretary and treasurer of the Virginia State Dairymen's Association.
Based on data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018, Virginia had 565 dairy farms in 2019, but the number continues to drop. As of Monday, Paulson said, there are close to 455 dairy farms in Virginia.
“We are certainly disappointed with the governor's veto of HB119,” Paulson said. “This was a symbolic bill that simply took the existing federal definition of milk and put it in state code.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines milk as the “lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”
Regardless of Northam’s veto, the legislation would have not gone into effect until 11 of 14 other states in the Southern region also pass similar legislation six months before, after or on Oct. 1, 2029.
North Carolina was the first state to pass the legislation in 2018, followed by Maryland and Louisiana in 2019.
Global nonprofit Good Food Institute said it supports Northam’s decision, with Policy Director Jessica Almy saying it was a “victory for free speech, free markets and consumer choice.”
“Gov. Northam has sided with Virginia consumers,” said Scott Weathers, the group's senior policy specialist. “Legislatures considering similar bills ought to follow Gov. Northam's leadership by rejecting these unconstitutional attempts to censor labels. Consumers should be the ones to pick the winners and losers in the marketplace -- not special interests lobbying in state legislatures."