85.7 F
Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Under the milk mustaches, a lot of scowls are turning up – make that down – at the moment in the Virgin Islands.
A long-ignored law has been invoked by the territory's two dairies – which are under overlapping ownership – that will have the effect of reducing, if not ending, the importation of milk pasteurized on the U.S. mainland. And Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik says he has no choice but to force food stores to comply.
Rutnik gave notice on Aug. 18 that, as of Oct. 1, imported milk products will no longer be allowed on the shelves past the 10-day "shelf life" specified under V.I. law. Violators will be subject to a $5,000 fine.
It takes six days for milk to get shipped from Florida to the Virgin Islands and onto local shelves, retailers say. Under the territory's 10-day shelf life law, that leaves four days in which to sell it. And that means that markets wishing to continue to offer their customers mainland milk will have no choice but to reduce their order volume, which will likely sell out between shipments, meaning there will be "milkless" days between deliveries.
In the last few days, the operators of the Marina Markets on St. John and St. Thomas and of the Plaza Extra on St. Thomas have told customers this means they won't be selling mainland milk at all – and have called on them to protest.
The first public sign of rebellion came at the Marina Market on St. John. Mimi Alioto, who with her husband, Frank, owns the store and another of the same name in Red Hook on St. Thomas, put signs up at the cash registers several days ago telling customers that "Due to the law, we will no longer be able to sell stateside milk." Then she faxed them to Willy Hamed, general manager of the Plaza Extra on St. Thomas, and he put them up there, too.
No imports, no milk for the lactose-intolerant
Hamed and Alioto both pointed out that local dairies do not produce Lactaid milk for those who are lactose, or milk sugar, intolerant. "For people who are lactose-intolerant, you are telling them they can't have milk," Alioto said. "In the Caribbean, a large proportion of the population is lactose-intolerant."
She also said her clientele is a mix of locals and continentals, "and stateside milk is not something that just statesiders want. If I don't have it, a lot of my customers don't buy any milk at all."
Alioto said she contacted the Federal Trade Commission and officials there told her, "You need to go to court with this. This is a bad law." However, she said she wasn't about to "spend $50,000 taking this to court."
Instead, as a St. John resident, she advised her customers to voice their complaint to "my St. John senators." The notices posted provide shoppers the telephone numbers of Sens. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Roosevelt David and advise those concerned to "encourage them to revoke this bad law."
On Monday, Alioto said with a chuckle, "I got a phone call from Roosevelt David's office saying, ‘I can't get any work done. The phone is ringing off the hook.' "
Hamed said he placed a call to Liburd, and he got a call back from the senator late Monday afternoon. Hamed said Plaza Extra was "working with Marina Market," and a meeting of interested parties was planned for Wednesday.
The notices also advise customers to call a toll-free Federal Trade Commission number, 1-877-FTC-HELP, "to file a complaint." And the notices warn that not only milk, including Lactaid milk, but a number of other products made with pasteurized milk will be taken off the shelves – including cottage cheese, cream cheese, eggnog, half-and-half, ricotta cheese, sour cream, whipping cream and yogurt. It was not clear Monday whether those items actually will disappear.
Officials of the territory's largest supermarket chain, Pueblo International, had earlier voiced their opposition to Rutnik's directive. Pueblo officials "came to us and said they felt this law was not fair and that it was antiquated," he said. They pointed out that "pasteurization methods have improved with technology. Milk kept at a 41-degree [Fahrenheit] temperature can last 14 to 20 days."
Milk, unlike wine, won't improve with age
Island Dairies president David Schuster says the intent of the law, which he recalled as being enacted "about 16 years ago," is to "guarantee consumers fresh, wholesome healthy products." He added, "I think everybody knows milk is not wine. It does not improve with age."
While the dairies are citing consumer protection as the purpose of the law, their interest in seeing it enforced is in response to what they view as unfair competition from large mainland milk producers willing to sell to V.I. retailers cheaper than the local dairies can.
Rutnik said Monday night that his job is to deal with the situation as a consumer issue, not an unfair business practices issue. "We have to protect the consumers," he said. "But then again, this is a law that is on the books. We are at this point enforcing it."
The law, sponsored by then-Sen. Holland Redfield II, was enacted more than a decade ago. In essence, it specified that pasteurized milk items sold in the territory shall have a 10-day legal shelf life counting from the date of pasteurization. In other words, anything not sold by the end of the 10-day period – including locally produced items – must be taken off the shelves.
In recent years, supermarkets have been carrying a growing volume of mainland milk, primarily from South Florida's McArthur Dairies. Many consumers never knew that it was St. Thomas Dairies that was importing the McArthur milk and distributing it locally along with its own milk made by recombining imported milk solids with water.
Supermarket authorities say they began stocking more imported milk in response to customer demand – that many shoppers found it literally more to their taste, and to have a longer "shelf life" once opened at home. Local dairy officials don't buy that and say they are the victims of unfair competition.
Rutnik said that Schuster, "representing the corporation" – Trans-Caribbean Dairy Corp., which owns both that St. Croix dairy and St. Thomas Dairies – approached him this summer "and said this is the law."
Over the next month, Rutnik said, "I researched it and tried to find some sort of leeway. We investigated the FDA [federal Food and Drug Administration], and it turned out it's totally a state issue" as to what the legal shelf life of perishable products should be.
And so on Aug. 18, Rutnik put out an advisory that, effective Oct. 1, any store found to have milk on the shelf more than 10 days after the pasteurization date would be subject to a $5,000 fine. "I gave them time to comply, to make sure orders in the pipeline would be taken care of," he said.
‘Expiration date' does not apply
The so-called "expiration date" stamped on milk containers is not the date that applies in the Virgin Islands. Rutnik said his research so far indicates that the territory is the only jurisdiction in the United States that has a 10-day shelf life. "In most states, it is 14 to 18 days," contingent on the milk being kept at no more than 41 degrees, he said.
Some states have shelf-life laws and some do not, Schuster said. In the case of those states that do, he added, "to the best of my knowledge, if a product is going to be exported, their only concern is to protect their resident consumers. It's up to the jurisdiction which is the final destination to regulate and guarantee consumers fresh, wholesome, healthy products."
Alioto disputed that. In the case of McArthur Dairies milk, which Marina Market has been carrying for years, she said, the c
ompany produces "regular milk and export milk. We receive export milk – that is more pasteurized than normal milk, and it's for 18 days." The milk intended for local South Florida consumption, she added, has a shelf life of 14 days.
Alioto noted that food wholesalers in the territory bring in yet another type of milk in quantity for the local hotels and restaurants. It's called "ultra-pasteurized" milk, with Shenandoah the main brand, and it has a specified shelf life of six weeks.
Schuster said for years "only a small quantity, hardly any" milk from stateside dairies was sold on his island. But recently, "when one of the major supermarkets on St. Croix began importing on a large scale, it did have a significant impact."
He declined to name the market but said it was not Plaza Extra. "There's fair and unfair competition," he said. "It's the question of pricing, true pricing, of the product."
When Redfield, now vice president for corporate affairs of Innovative Communication Corp., introduced the law, the St. Thomas and St. Croix dairies were separate operations. Island Dairies was already marketing its own fresh milk to St. Thomas and St. John in competition with St. Thomas Dairies' recombined milk. At the same time, "the St. Thomas dairy was bringing in milk from the States," Alioto said. "Originally it was Borden's."
According to Schuster, Island Dairies and St. Thomas Dairies today "both are independent companies. The majority owners of Trans-Caribbean Dairies are the people who own interest in both companies."
Both companies are Industrial Development Commission beneficiaries. He said that since there is no excise tax levied on the imported mainland milk, the IDC benefits "don't give us an advantage; they just level the playing field."
Rutnik said Monday night that he sees both sides: "I can understand with St. Croix and the cows competing with outside dairies, there is an opportunity for the outside dairies to take advantage of that. At times they have a surplus of milk and are willing to sell it at half price and take advantage. But I represent the consumers, not the businesses, of the Virgin Islands."
In limiting shoppers' options, "I think the consumer is not benefitting," he said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.