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What is milk? North Dakota lawmakers ruminate on the question

Notably absent from Rep. Dawson Holle’s proposed definition of milk are drinks made from soy, oats, coconuts and almonds.

A store shelf with boxes labeled "not milk," "hemp milk," "goat milk" and "soy milk."
Alternative milk products are displayed at Tochi Products in downtown Fargo on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
David Samson / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota’s dairy producers have beef with the makers of certain plant-based drinks. The industry believes a bill setting the record straight on what qualifies as milk could send a message to regulators in Washington.

Rep. Dawson Holle, a Mandan Republican and dairy farmer, is sponsoring House Bill 1255, which would clarify in state law that “milk” is a “lacteal secretion” obtained from a hoofed mammal.

The teenage lawmaker’s proposal doesn’t draw the line at cows — liquid collected from goats, sheep, horses and even reindeer can also be considered milk.

Notably absent from Holle’s definition of milk are drinks made from soy, oats, coconuts and almonds.

“The real issue in the dairy industry is that there’s kind of a war between dairy milk and soy milk,” Holle told the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on Thursday, Jan. 19.

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“Many consumers think that soy milk is actually milk and they’re getting the same nutritional benefits, and they’re not,” Holle noted.

Kenton Holle, Dawson Holle’s grandfather and a lobbyist for the North Dakota Milk Producers Association, told the Republican-led committee that the labeling of plant-based milk is “a subject that has been under the saddle of dairy producers for a long time.”

Dawson Holle, an 18-year-old candidate for the North Dakota House of Representatives, poses at an election party in Mandan on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. The Republican won his race handily later later in the evening.
Rep. Dawson Holle, R-Mandan, is pictured on the night of his election on Nov. 8, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

The younger Holle said the intent of his proposal is not to crack down on the labeling of plant-based beverages in North Dakota. That kind of enforcement would likely have to come from the federal government, several bill backers noted Thursday.

But passing the bill would convey to national regulators that North Dakotans consider only animal-based milk worthy of the title, Holle said.

Representatives of the broader agriculture industry voiced their support for the bill Thursday. North Dakota Farm Bureau lobbyist Pete Hanebutt told the committee “it behooves you to support it.” There was no testimony in opposition to the legislation.

Rep. Craig Headland, a Republican committee member from Montpelier, noted legislators made a similar move in 2019 when they approved a bill to clarify that cell-cultured meat imitation products are not actually meat and may not be marketed as such.

A representative of the state Department of Agriculture proposed an amendment to Holle’s bill that would add lacteal secretions obtained from camels, llamas and alpacas to the definition of milk.

The committee did not take action on the bill Thursday morning.

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Raw milk

Holle is also backing House Bill 1515, which would allow dairy farms to sell “Grade A” unpasteurized milk at their farms. The proposal would prohibit farms from selling the controversial product to grocery stores or wholesalers.

Raw milk “can be contaminated with harmful germs” that cause foodborne illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sale of raw milk is illegal in North Dakota and 22 other states.

Many dairy farmers swear by the product and say health officials exaggerate the risks of drinking it.

North Dakota lawmakers struck a provision to legalize raw milk from a 2017 bill that expanded the legal sale of home-cooked goods .

Holle said his bill is a more conservative approach to legalizing the sale of unpasteurized milk since it would only allow purchases on permitted dairy farms.

Allowing sales of raw milk could aid the state’s 40 dairy farms by giving producers a new avenue to earn money, Holle said.

A hearing for the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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