Grocery stores in the Commonwealth could one day sell dairy milk alternatives by a different name; think soy drink, water or fluid — you name it, just not milk.
At some point in the future in Virginia, oat milk may simply have to be called something else.
The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill that, if signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, would eventually limit the use of the term "milk" on labels and cartons to the "lacteal secretion of a healthy hooved mammal." So if it comes from a cow, goat or even yak, it can be marketed and sold as milk. But if it's from soy, almond, oat or any other plant-based source, it can't. (Human breast milk could still be called milk.)
"It doesn't come from almonds, guys. If we have truth in advertising, milk is milk, and everything else has capitalized on the market share milk has had," said Virginia State Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), during a debate last week, when the bill was approved on a bipartisan 24-16 vote. It cleared the House of Delegates in January.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokesman for Northam, said in an email that he "will carefully review this legislation when it reaches his desk."
The so-called "dairy purity" bill is part of a national effort by the dairy industry to protect what dairy farmers say is a challenging landscape for producing and selling milk. Since 1975, per capita milk consumption has declined dramatically in the U.S., and the industry has consolidated — more than 20,000 dairy farms have shut down over the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry says plant-based milks are part of the problem since they offer consumers alternatives while using the same name as the traditional product.
"This was a bill that was brought to us by the dairy industry. We have been losing cattle farms at a very rapid rate in Virginia. You can argue the merits of the competition of what constitutes milk, and whether people drink milk the way we used to when we were kids, but the bottom line is they are trying to preserve their unique brand," said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken up the issue, and in 2018 North Carolina was the first state to adopt a dairy purity law. And last year Maryland passed its own version, which was written by State Sen. Jason Gallion (R-Cecil), himself a former dairy farmer. Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wisconsin have also debated similar measures this year.
And it's not just the U.S. — European Union law prevents the use of "milk" for anything that doesn't come from a hooved mammal, causing some producers to instead use "mylk" or "m*lk" on labels.
"This is something that has been challenging to a lot of the dairy producers in my part of the commonwealth," said Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke). "It might seem like a funny issue to some folks, but I can't tell you how many people stopped me and talked to me about this in my part of the state this fall."
But opponents of the bill say it won't do anything to address the underlying causes for the declining consumption of milk, nor will it help shore up an industry that has been further battered by President Trump's tariffs.
"I would never, ever speak to hurt the dairy farmers, but this is kinda silly," said Virginia State Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George). "I don't know why we can't say soy milk or coconut milk. I don't understand why we're going to define this in this way for a purpose when frankly it won't even help that cause."
And other senators pointed out that soy is Virginia's third-largest export, after coal and computer chips.
"I'm a little confused about how the labeling of soy milk is confusing to consumers when soy milk has been a product since the 1940s," said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond).
"The reason that the dairy industry has seen decline is not because people are confused about whether soy milk is cow's milk, it's because they're starting to a prefer or want a dairy alternative. And whether you call it soy milk or almond milk or almond drink is not going to change that. But we are going to impose costs that will impact soy products that are also a big industry here in Virginia. And I don't think we should do that just to make someone feel good," she added.
Michael Robbins, a spokesman for the Plant Based Foods Association, said in an email that not only do its members oppose Virginia's bill, but they believe it to be on shaky legal ground.
"The bill in the Virginia legislature would create unnecessary, confusing, and costly label changes that violate the First Amendment and will ultimately be struck down in court if they even go into effect," he said.
But whether Virginia's law — or Maryland, or North Carolina's — even goes into effect remains in question. To avoid raising constitutional concerns around a single state interfering with interstate commerce, 11 of 14 southeastern states have to adopt dairy purity laws before any of them take effect. If that doesn't happen by 2029, the bills that did pass will become null and void.