If a drink doesn't come from an animal with hooves, North Carolina legislators don't want you to call it "milk."
Part of the General Assembly's 2018 Farm Bill would ban the marketing of milks made from plants, including almond, coconut and soy, from being labeled "milk" in North Carolina after Jan. 1.
The products could still be sold, they just couldn't legally be labeled "milk" under the proposed law. That distinction would be reserved for dairy products like milk from animals, including cows and goats.
Federal regulations dating back decades require milk to "come from a hoofed animal," Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, the Senate's Agriculture and Environmental Committee chairman, said at a meeting Tuesday of the committee. "The vast majority of the countries around the world" already do not allow plant-based drinks to be labeled "milk."
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Canada and the countries that make up the European Union are among nearly 200 nations that do not allow beverages to be labeled "milk" unless they are animal products, North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said.
And labeling plant-based liquids "milk" is confusing to consumers, Troxler said at the meeting Tuesday.
"We've just informally asked people, 'What do you think is in almond milk?' " Troxler said Tuesday. "And they say, 'It's almond-flavored milk.' But no, it's not. There is no milk in the product.
"The products are fine, but they need to be properly labeled so the public understands what they're buying."
When asked if there is any evidence that consumers are confused by the labels, Troxler said he didn't need it.
"I don’t need evidence," he said. "It’s already the law."
Republican Sen. Tom McInnis said he was one of the confused consumers Troxler mentioned.
"I would have bet my car that there was some semblance of milk in those products," McInnis said. "And I would have lost my car."
The bill defines "milk" as "the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy hooved mammals. Hooved mammals include, but are not limited to ... cattle, water buffalo, sheep, goats, yaks ... llamas, alpacas, camels ... deer, reindeer, moose ... horses, donkeys, etc."
"Why would you put the word 'milk' on a product that's not milk unless it's for marking purposes to mislead the public," Troxler said.
Democrat Sen. Erica Smith said beauty and hygiene products also often carry the label "milk."
"I'm certainly not confused to drink my hair milk or my bath milk," Smith said.
Democrat Sen. Mike Woodard said some retailers, including Trader Joe's, already label their milk-like products as a "drink" rather than "milk."
Democrat Sen. Jeff Jackson asked whether plant-based milks would be pulled from store shelves.
"This won't be a Gestapo action," Troxler said. "We will send out notification letters of the dates that these products have to be relabeled ... It's just truth in labeling is all it's about. It's not about the beverage itself."
But Troxler said if companies don't relabel their products by the beginning of next year, the state could ban those products from store shelves.
Troxler and Brent Jackson both said North Carolina farmers need the measure, and the dairy industry is "in such dire shape."
For the past three years, dairy farmers, including those in North Carolina, have taken a loss, Troxler said. Some have been forced to sell milk at below production costs and some small farms have closed, or are in danger of shutting down, as a result.
"Our dairy farmers need it," Jackson said. "They're in dire straits and have been for a number of years."
Troxler said North Carolina would be the first state to pass such a requirement, if the bill becomes law. He said the law would be an enforcement of federal law, not a new requirement. He said he hopes other states will adopt the same requirement.
"We are trying to lead here in North Carolina," he said.
The Senate Agriculture and Environmental Committee approved the farm bill Tuesday. It heads to the Senate Finance Committee next.