State representatives lead dairy industry efforts

A federal ban on calling non-dairy drinks “milk.” The return of whole milk to school cafeterias, overruling federal dietary guidelines. Expanded visas for foreign migrant laborers.

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation is at the vanguard of a push by America’s dairy farmers to get favorable treatment from the federal government. With Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, and Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, leading the way, their effort could change school menus and the dairy aisle at your grocery store.

Pennsylvania is among the nation’s top dairy-producing states, and central Pennsylvania is a major production center. Nearly 20 percent of the state’s dairy farms and a quarter of its cows are in the counties covered by the 13th District, Joyce noted in a recent news release.

But landowners and dairy companies face stiff and growing competition, especially from milk substitutes made with almonds or soy. An array of studies have shown surging customer interest in plant-based drinks.

That interest has accompanied a drop in dairy consumption. Per-person annual dairy consumption dropped from nearly 250 pounds in the 1970s to 154 pounds in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and milk consumption tanked in the five-year period after 2010.

Enforcement guidelines

Farmers and their allies in government have set their sights on the non-dairy competition, with a flurry of state and federal bills introduced in the past few months. The latest, H.R. 1769, would require the Food and Drug Administration to issue clear enforcement guidelines against non-dairy products that include the word “milk” on their labels.

Thompson and Joyce were among the bill’s 29 cosponsors when it was introduced March 14.

The bill follows a letter submitted by Joyce and a Democratic colleague to FDA officials in January, calling on the agency to more strictly enforce rules against false dairy labeling. Joyce, a medical doctor, said the labels could create health and nutritional concerns.

Washington is hardly unified behind the effort. Writers at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, criticized milk label regulations as an example of government overreach, while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, mocked the suggestion that consumers would confuse almond milk with cow milk.

Joyce acknowledged economic concerns for farmers also drives the effort.

“In visits to dairy farm after dairy farm, I have heard about the lost revenue that plant-based dairy imitators have taken on our economy and it is incredibly urgent we continue to monitor the subject,” Joyce said in a news release at the time. “Partnering with the FDA to continue to revive Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is one of my top priorities this term.”

Dairy-supporting members of Congress and members of President Donald Trump’s administration have also pushed for schools to introduce more dairy products, reversing health limitations enacted in recent years.

The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act — introduced last month by Thompson and cosponsored by Joyce — would rewrite federal rules to specifically allow whole milk at school cafeterias. The bill would override federal guidelines established in 2015 that recommended lower-calorie, lower-fat alternatives.

While Thompson’s bill hasn’t moved through Congress yet, it follows a trend set by federal officials: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has endorsed chocolate and flavored milk in schools, and his department loosened restrictions on a range of cafeteria items last year.

Dairy industry struggling

Pennsylvania’s dairy industry “has struggled, not only from the imitation and substitute dairy items in the marketplace, but also from the decline in milk consumption in schools,” Joyce said in January.

A third issue has cut into dairy producers’ profits: A shrinking labor pool, which enables farm workers to secure higher wages. As a battle over immigration and Trump’s planned border wall rages in Congress, the industry, which relies heavily on migrant farm labor from countries like Mexico, is seeking looser rules on foreign help.

Dairy industry journals speak plainly of the issue, with Milk Magazine warning last year of rising wages for foreign-born workers.

“The scarcity of farm labor is exacerbated by tougher rules surrounding immigrant workers from Mexico,” the magazine reported. “In addition to immigration controls, like tightening borders, and increased immigration enforcement, birthrates in Mexico are falling and populations are moving toward urban areas, leaving fewer people with agricultural backgrounds who would be interested in U.S. farm work.”

About half of the industry’s workforce is foreign-born, Joyce noted this month. But while farmers in many agricultural fields can get seasonal visas for relatively low-wage foreign workers, dairy — which operates year-round — isn’t covered.

Joyce and Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., are seeking to change that with a new bill that would allow the same visas for dairy hands. The visas would let migrant workers stay three years, with a chance at a three-year extension.

“Milk production in our country relies heavily on our migrant workers, and for far too long Congress has harmed the dairy industry by failing to fix our broken immigration system,” Joyce said in announcing the bill.

Industry representatives have praised the effort, with National Milk Producers Federation CEO Jim Mulhern issuing a statement backing the Joyce-Brindisi bill. The federation donated to Joyce’s and Thompson’s campaigns in 2018, while the dairy industry at large gave nearly $2.7 million to congressional candidates overall, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets project.

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