State lawmakers leery of propping up dairy industry Issues include price, extending 'sell-by' date

November 27, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The recommendations of a state task force aimed at halting the sharp decline of Maryland's dairy industry received a cautious reception yesterday by House and Senate committees of the General Assembly.

Lawmakers were most leery of a recommendation for a price support system that could reverse the trend of farms going out of business, but would have consumers paying higher prices for milk and other dairy products.

They also expressed concern over a suggestion that would allow the industry to extend the "sell by" date on milk containers.

"It's going to be very controversial," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said of the proposal to give the secretary of agriculture the authority to establish minimum prices received by dairy farmers, milk processors and retailers.

"There are two legitimate sides to the issue, and I can't predict if it will pass or not," the Allegany Democrat added.

Under the terms of the recommendation, Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley would be guided in his price-setting authority by an advisory panel of four consumers, one milk producer, one processor and one retailer.

The price would be set after considering the cost of production, consumer interest and the milk-pricing policies of adjacent states.

The task force, which was headed by Riley and Dennis West-hoff, chairman of the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Maryland, concluded that the minimum-price plan was needed for Maryland farmers to compete on "on a level playing field" with their counterparts in Pennsylvania and Virginia, where minimum prices have been a way of business since 1935.

Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil Democrat who is chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, withheld his support, saying he needed "more information on what it is going to do to milk prices."

Concerning price, Riley said the preliminary indication from his staff is that it would rise a penny a gallon if the plan is approved by the legislature.

At the conclusion of a Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee hearing, Riley asked committee Chairman Clarence W. Blount whether he would give legislative authority to transform the task force's recommendation into proposed legislation.

Riley did not get the go-ahead. "We will have to get together with other members of the committee and meet with counsel before we can decide the next step to take," the Baltimore Democrat said.

For a variety of reasons -- most of them economic -- Maryland has lost about 20 percent of its dairy farms over the past four years.

Riley admitted that the industry is divided over price supports. While most farmers favor them, he said, three of the state's five milk processors are opposed.

Giant Food Inc. is one of those. "We don't see any benefit of the minimum-price plan," said Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for the Baltimore area's largest food retailer. "All it will do is drive up of the price of milk."

A task force recommendation that would allow processors to extend the "sell by" date of milk was also viewed with suspicion. Various members of the House committee wanted assurance that consumers would be buying fresh milk of good quality.

Guns suggested the committee be involved in a taste test that would compare milk with a longer shelf life than is allowed in Maryland with milk sold here.

He said the issue "has nothing to do with science; the consumer perception is that fresh milk is better."

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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