On Wednesday, the Tennessee Senate and House both unanimously passed legislation encouraging consumers to buy local milk by permitting the use of “Local Tennessee Milk” labels only on milk produced in the state.
Sponsored by East Tennessee Reps. David Hawk, Jeremy Faison and Timothy Hill, House Bill 2153 was completely amended Wednesday with the milk label language before advancing through both chambers.
Although no state or federal law could be found that forbids the use of locally produced labels, the new law states, “Any milk sold in this state may be labeled as ‘Local Tennessee Milk’, or a statement that indicates the milk is Tennessee milk, if the milk contains only milk produced in this state.”
Hawk said the legislation is not a mandate and companies that distribute and sell Tennessee milk can choose whether to incorporate the labeling or not.
“It’s just saying we have so many families that are so deeply tied to the dairy industry that we want end consumers to know that their milk originated in Tennessee. And this is a way to do that through this new law,” Hawk said.
The legislation’s passage comes over a month after national dairy company Dean Foods announced it was terminating its purchasing contracts with more than 100 dairy farmers nationwide, including three in Greeneville and two in Morristown.
“Concern about losing these milk contracts is on every dairy farmer's mind, not only in East Tennessee, but the fear is moving across Tennessee that 'we may be next’ in other parts of the state,” Hawk said.
A Dean Foods spokesman said the company regretted making the decision to terminate the contracts, but cited market conditions, such as a surplus in milk production and a decline in milk consumption, as contributing factors.
“This legislation just passed today so I can’t speculate on what we plan to do,” Dean Foods spokesman Reace Smith said. “As a company who proudly sells Tennessee milk to Tennessee consumers, we are looking into what it will mean for us.”
Ashlan Holland with Holly Knoll Farms was among those who received letters in February stating Dean Foods would no longer buy her family’s milk after May 31.
While the family is still hoping to find another buyer for their milk before the contract is terminated, Holland has met with lawmakers and specifically advocated for certified labels highlighting milk produced in Tennessee.
“It’s more convenient for the consumers and it’s just great for farmers to see the finished product on the shelf,” Holland said. “It might not help us now, but it will help the others and I want everybody to do good as a dairy farmer because I know how hard they work.”
Milk currently sold in grocery stores do have codes printed near the top of their containers and lids identifying where the milk originated, but consumers have to locate the code and punch it into a website, like www.whereismymilkfrom.com, to find its location.
Julie Walker, a Cocke County farmer, said this bill essentially sets the stage for a branded program, with standards, so a consumer may readily know their purchase of milk supports their Tennessee farm neighbors.
“Criteria for use of such a label must be developed, and then labels or branding icons applied to milk cartons. Processors utilize different label mechanisms, so the branding may take different forms,” Walker said.
“It will take several months for all of these factors to be pulled together in an easily recognizable, yet certified program. This will be a program with long-term benefits for the Ag sector and dairy processing sector, which collectively has a value of upward of $400 Million dollars to the State of Tennessee. Some calculations suggest that number is higher.”
Walker credited the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association for working to get this bill passed and bringing this issue to the forefront.
If or when Gov. Bill Haslam signs the bill, it would take effect July 1.
Hawk said Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Jai Templeton is planning a trip to Greene County in the coming weeks to meet with dairy farmers and brainstorm more ideas to improve the industry.