Home Commentary Op-ed GOT MILK? SINCE WHEN? DOES IT MATTER?

GOT MILK? SINCE WHEN? DOES IT MATTER?

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At a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Economic Development chaired by Sen. Adelbert Bryan, an issue was hotly debated about enforcement of the milk pull date law. David Schuster representing Island Dairies and St. Thomas Dairies showed great concern over DLCA’s lack of enforcement of an approximately 15-year-old law requiring a 10-day shelf life for milk sold in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As commissioner of DLCA, I became aware of this law by notification from Mr. Schuster. Our agency had no prior history or enforcement policy about this law that anyone could remember. However, we respect all laws and have developed a strategy for enforcement. The importers of pasteurized milk were informed in writing of this law and were required to pull their imported milk from the shelves 10 days from the date of pasteurization or face fines.
To understand the impact of this law, one must know a little of how imported milk is processed, shipped and marketed. There are currently four brands of milk being imported into the territory. They carry a shelf lives of 12, 14 and 18 days from the date of manufacture or pasteurization. With today’s technological advancements in pasteurization and refrigeration in shipping, these shelf life dates have become industry standards. Milk kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit is optimum for preserving quality, and today’s refrigerated shipping methods can easily achieve this temperature.
When you do the math on the date of pasteurization plus shipping to the islands, you have used approximately five of the 10 days of shelf life already. By Virgin Islands law, that leaves a retailer only five days to sell an inventory of milk. Yet supermarkets still import milk — because of customer demand and lower price in some instances.
Mr. Schuster’s argument is persuasive that his milk is the freshest on the market. Please note that this only applies to Island Dairies of St. Croix. There is no lengthy shipping time, and milk is produced daily from cows on St. Croix. Where Mr. Schuster falls short is when, through special legislation, an artificial barrier is used to deny Virgin Islands consumers a choice in their milk selection.
There is no doubt that our enforcement of the milk law has impacted the pricing and availability of stateside milk. Sometimes to the detriment of local milk producers, stores have had to discount imported milk to beat the deadline for removing it from their shelves, thereby making it more attractive to thrifty consumers.
As DLCA is mandated to protect the consumers against unfair trade practices such as special-interest legislation enacted only to protect one milk producer against competition, we must alert the public. Given that no one can argue successfully that 12-, 14- or even 18-day-old milk is in any great degree less nutritious or fresh than 10-day-old milk, why not let consumers decide what milk they wish to purchase?
Island Dairies and their counterpart on St. Thomas are one entity, an islandwide corporation called Trans-Caribbean Dairy Corp. They have recently been given a 25-year tax-benefit package that exempts them from most taxes and fees. I support this subsidization for many reasons. First and foremost, St. Croix has a large investment in capital and jobs for producing milk. We need to support this industry to protect against dependency on imports for our survival.
What does not make sense is extending these same benefits to St. Thomas Dairies, which imports all of its milk and reconstitutes it for local consumption. It also competes with Island Dairies for the same market. I have a hard time accepting Mr. Schuster’s argument of "fresh is best" when his company also sells imported fresh powder milk to reconstitute with local water in the marketplace.
The bottom line is, give the consumer the right to choose. If Mr. Schuster’s milk is the best tasting, freshest and most nutritious, then market it as such and win the customer’s loyalty. If the government needs to subsidize a local industry because of its strategic importance, then lobby the Legislature and governor for more milk subsidies.
But it is ultimately consumers who will prevail in their choice of product, and so it should be. Any artificial manipulation of the marketplace is bad policy for consumers and usually results in higher prices for an already overburdened public.

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