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State High Court to Weigh Unfortified-Milk Ruling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Supreme Court has agreed to review a state appeals court’s decision granting out-of-state dairies the right to sell cheaper, unenriched milk in California.

In seeking the review, the state argues that by allowing Phoenix-based Shamrock Foods Co. to sell its unfortified milk here, the court is undermining the state’s minimum standards for nutrition.

“The economics would drive California standard milk out of existence,” says John Dyer, an attorney for the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Dyer contends that the move wouldn’t create more choice for consumers as claimed but instead would cause the state’s milk processors to abandon California’s rigid and more expensive standards.

Mad About Milk, an organization representing out-of-state producers, argues that California’s standards drive up the cost of milk to some of the highest levels in the country, making it harder for low-income consumers to consume as much milk.

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The subject is also receiving more scrutiny in Sacramento. The Senate Health and Human Services and Agriculture and Water Resources committees are holding a joint hearing in Los Angeles on Dec. 9 to examine the nutritional differences between unenriched and enriched milk and the public benefit of allowing lower-cost milk into the state.

Dairy officials and some consumer groups insist that fortification makes it easier for young children and older people to meet their dietary needs, and it’s only marginally more expensive to produce. “The cost difference to make that milk is 14 cents to 16 cents a gallon,” says Michael Boccadoro, spokesman for dairy industry-supported Californians for Nutritious Milk. “The reality is that any difference beyond that is being driven by decisions made by retailers.”

A 4th District Court of Appeal ruling in August paved the way for Shamrock to begin selling unenriched milk in California, as long as it adhered to federal composition guidelines. The Arizona company had been battling state regulators since 1994, when the state ordered the company to take its products off supermarket shelves.

Since 1962, California agriculture officials have required dairy processors to enrich their low-fat milk with milk solids. The process, which was initially intended to ensure that farm prices (which are linked to milk fat prices) remain high as consumers shifted to lower-fat dairy products, also boosted the calcium and protein of these products. California is the only state that demands enrichment beyond federal standards.

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