A new study recommends Pennsylvania begin charging a fee on plant-based milks to level the playing field for dairy farmers.
The report, released Wednesday, also suggests strengthening the state milk pricing agency and improving promotion of Pennsylvania fluid milk.
The study comes from the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, a state research agency that makes policy recommendations to lawmakers.
Sen. Judith Schwank, who sponsored the 2018 legislation that commissioned the study, praised the agency for producing outside-the-box ideas.
“They may be the germ of an idea for future action,” said Schwank, the top Democrat on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.
The boldest suggestion is creating a new milk price class for plant milks. The four existing classes influence pricing for fluid milk, cheese and other dairy products.
Enraged by nut and soy drinks that have appropriated the term “milk,” dairy groups have been pressuring the federal Food and Drug Administration to enforce its definition of milk as a “lacteal secretion” — i.e., from a mammal.
But Pennsylvania’s Milk Marketing Law has a broader definition of milk that is focused on products. One of those products is “milk drink,” which the committee said could describe plant-based alternatives.
The Milk Marketing Board could use its power to create a special class of milk and use that class to assess a fee on plant milks.
The fee would provide much-needed help in meeting the board’s administrative costs.
It’s not clear how much money the fee would generate, but it could offer some schadenfreude for dairy farmers frustrated by their plant-based competition.
The regulation would presumably draw opposition from beverage manufacturers and retailers, but “it’s worth considering,” Schwank said.
The study also proposes revamping the Milk Marketing Board, which some farmers say has been ineffective at aiding them.
The report recommends adding two seats to the three-member board, and renaming it the Milk Control Board to better reflect its regulatory duties.
Board members have said the name doesn’t fit, and Schwank agrees.
The study also recommends the board license milk retailers to collect sales data that could inform its decision-making.
The board is already working on another study proposal — requiring reporting of a state premium on farmers’ milk checks. This move faces opposition from cooperatives, who say it would be too costly.
The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee study is the second of three major state research projects designed to combat the five years of low prices that have driven hundreds of Pennsylvania farms out of the dairy industry.
The Ag Department last year released a strategic plan for dairy, which suggested diversified processing and improved promotion of Pennsylvania fluid milk.
And the Dairy Future Commission, created earlier this year in a law sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, held its first meeting on Sept. 3.
Schwank, who sits on the commission, said the new report should speed up Dairy Future’s work because it provides extensive background research on the industry.
In a letter responding to this week’s report, Ag Secretary Russell Redding mainly offered technical edits and emphasized the administration’s efforts to aid dairy farmers.
“The (report’s) overview of industry challenges will assist current initiatives and provide insight for years to come,” Redding said.
The Ag Department has already been pursuing several of the study’s recommendations, such as attracting cheese processors to the state and loosening the state’s restrictive rules on sell-by dates.
All of the state initiatives have essentially the same goal for the dairy industry.
“We’ve got to take every measure that we can to help protect it, to enhance it and to outline a future for it that is positive,” Schwank said.